With more families depending on the National School Lunch Program to feed their children, school districts are gearing up to implement new nutrition guidelines being handed down by the federal government by early next year.
But the revised rules a requirement of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 will be a shadow of the Obama administration's original intent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposal was effectively blocked by Congress last month through an appropriations bill. Some argue this was the work of lobbyists employed by food producers.
Clay Masters, NET News
A poster of My Plate hangs on the cafeteria wall at Clinton Elementary School in Lincoln, Neb
"It's very frustrating," said Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition Services and Consumer Services at USDA. "Because what it means is it's an example of money, influence and special interest trumping science and health on children."
The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price school lunch program offered to eligible students, based on family income levels. And it can be an important source of nutrition for poor children. The USDA proposed that the program's nutritional guidelines increase portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, cut back on starchy vegetables (i.e. potatoes and peas) and gradually decrease sodium.
"Would they (have) been beneficial? "I think they (had) some benefits to them," said Edith Zumwalt, director of nutrition services for Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska.
But Zumwalt said the USDA guidelines would have cost 15 cents more per lunch. And with shorter lunch periods becoming more common, she was concerned that larger portions would mean more food in the trash.
As for the less-ambitious guidelines now in the works, Zumwalt said, she's not overly concerned about implementation because the district already has increased fresh fruits and vegetables in meals.
"I think we need to do a lot of education on how to make wise decisions on what to eat and we can do the best job at school feeding kids," she said. "But they've got to eat it. So we have to convince them it's the right thing."
According to Concannon, nationwide, 68 percent of the 32 million children who eat school lunches qualify for free or reduced price meals. Those standards are set at the federal level. Students from families with household incomes at or below $29,000 are eligible for a free lunch. Students from a household income between $29,000 and $41,000 qualify for reduced priced lunches.
The numbers are growing.
"In this extended jobs recession we're seeing an increase in the number of children in schools receiving that free and reduced priced lunch," the USDA's Concannon said.
The New York Times recently reported that the number of students receiving free and reduced price lunches rose to 21 million students last school year - up from 18 million in the 2006-07 school year. That's a 17 percent increase.
Hind Razooqi's kids go to Lincoln Public Schools. She relies not only the school lunch program for her kids' daily nutrition, but also its breakfast. Razooqi said she's happy with increased vegetables in her kids' meals, but her religion prohibits her family from eating the meat served in the lunches.
"I'm trying to tell my kids not to eat meat in the school, because we're Muslim we can only eat Halal meat," said Razooqi. "I wish they could bring Halal meat and cook for the kids."
So what's going to end up on lunchroom trays when the guidelines are implemented next fall?
Concannon would not give details, but he promised there would be "rigorous changes" even with the limitations imposed by Congress.