Getting kids to want to eat healthy is a challenge. Offering them nutritious foods that are also delicious at an incredibly low cost is an even bigger challenge.
When you compound the aforementioned with new government mandates dictating restrictions on protein, sodium and fat, it’s no surprise that some districts—like Township High School District 214, in Arlington Heights, Ill.—are opting out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in order to continue to offer foods that would not otherwise be allowed.
“Foods that do not meet the new federal snack guidelines and cannot be served include hummus, yogurt, pretzels and hardboiled eggs,” says Christine Frole, R.D., SNS, director of food and nutrition services at D214, who has been with the district for three years.
After a unanimous board vote in May, D214 dropped out the program at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, forfeiting more than $900,000 in federal funding that subsidizes the school’s free and reduced-price lunch program.
Frole, who is an active member of the Illinois School Nutrition Association, shared with FM her thoughts on how dropping out of the program has actually been a step in the right direction for her district.
Q: Tell me about your district. How big is it?
A: We service six high schools, one alternative school and two satellite schools. Enrollment is 12,000 with 29 percent free and reduced eligible.
Q: D214 is one of the first schools in the country to reject the NSLP. What led to this decision?
A: In June of 2013, the federal government released new nutrition guidelines and regulations that mandate all foods available beginning at midnight, continuing throughout the school day and extending 30 minutes after school, must meet the federal government’s minimum nutrition standards. This would include food sold as fundraiser items, in vending machines, at school stores and in cafeterias.
Prior to the new guidelines going into effect on July 1, 2014, we held surveys and focus groups, and our students told us that they would go off campus if we followed the standards.
So we careful reviewed the regulations, we did an in-depth analysis of our current cafeteria meal program and we solicited feedback from student and staff. After all that, district administrators recommended that we not participate in the NSLP beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.
Q: That was a bold move. Were you worried about losing the funding?
A: It’s important to understand that the NSLP is a federal grant program. If we were in the program and the students weren’t eating with us, we wouldn’t receive the reimbursement anyway.
Q: Without the guidelines to keep you in check, are you serving less healthful foods like pizza and french fries?
A: Absolutely not. Nutrition and wellness are our top priorities and in the forefront of all our decision-making. We model the NSLP guidelines for calories, nutrients and fat. Unlike the NSLP, we do not force students to take items they don’t want or have no intention of eating.
Q: As a dietitian, do you disagree with the standards?
A: The new standards have certainly proven challenging for school districts like ours. The intent of the guidelines is important, though. We strongly support the goal of feeding students healthy meals. It’s something we’ve always done in our schools. However, some of the new guidelines are so restrictive that it limits us from providing the variety our students demand.
Q: So what has opting out done for your district so far?
A: It has given us more flexibility to be creative with our dishes and offerings. Without all the limitations, we can offer students a range of healthy options, as well as tried-and-true favorites and we can encourage them to make healthy, balanced choices.
Q: What does the new menu look like?
A: Our students have robust tastes and access to a lot of variety off campus so we mirror that with our menus. We offer 10 to 12 options daily that include healthy choices that align with our students’ desires.
Food Costs, Student Impact, More
Q: Can you give me some examples?
A: Grilled veggie polenta, sushi, fresh fruit smoothies, grilled veggie pasta primavera, hummus wraps, apple feta and edamame salads, falafel and grilled chicken breast with rice pilaf are some of the favorites.
It’s important to note that we couldn’t serve many of these dishes if we continued in the NSLP.
Q: The menu sounds a lot like the kind of thing you’d find in college dining. Is it?
A: Our district sees high school graduation not as an endpoint, so yes, we have implemented a more collegiate menu to help our students prepare for the next step at colleges and universities where they have seemingly endless dining choices.
Q: What has changed from an operational standpoint?
A: We’ve branched out of the cafeteria and integrated our marketing efforts with curricular classes to showcase the healthy new and appetizing choices available to both staff and students. Digital menu boards with pictures and nutritional information have been installed. Food kiosks have been set up to allow students to sample cafeteria options. Recipe contests have been held in conjunction with culinary classes to involve students in meal and menu selections.
Q: What kind of impact has this had on students?
A: We are seeing more excitement in and around the cafeteria due to these cooperative efforts and our thinking outside the lunch box. We have conducted student surveys at all schools and have implemented recurrent student requests, too.
Q: Has participation changed?
A: We’ve been able to increase participation by 20 percent and we are selling more full-priced meals. Be assured that students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, continue to receive free or reduced cost lunch.
Q: Have your food costs risen?
A: In order to offer students more nutritious meal options, the cost to purchase those foods has increased slightly. Our base meal price from last year was $3 and that has remained the same, but we’ve added two additional tiers—$3.25 and $3.50—based on what the entrée costs us. These prices are still affordable to our families, but they allow us to serve healthy meals.
Q: How much are free and reduced students paying?
A: Free eligible students continue to receive meals at no cost and reduced eligible students pay $1 for breakfast and $2 for lunch.
The new tiers help ensure we're able to provide items for a healthy, balanced diet as part of our menu. We are also able to offer students who qualify at a reduced rate—supplemented by the district—access to a nutritious meal.
Q: Do you receive any federal funding?
A: We have entered into the Special Milk program where we receive 23 cents for every paid and reduced eligible milk served, and the average cost of a half pint milk for every free eligible milk served.
So, yes, we still receive some federal funding. It has been challenging at our higher free and reduced eligible schools, but we are looking to increase variety and choice for our students so they eat with us.
Q: Do you think other districts will follow in your footsteps?
A: Yes, and many districts from all over the country have contacted me to discuss our decision as they make presentations to their board to opt out of the program. I read a recent School Nutrition Association survey that only 18 percent of school meal program operators anticipate their meal programs will break even this year.