Federal regulatory interference has managed to do what many would have thought impossible. It has made school lunches even less palatable.
Federal rules that took effect at the start of the school year require cafeterias to serve more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. The result, at least in Methuen, is that students have been throwing out more food uneaten. And they’re not throwing away just a little more. Wayne Vespa, the director of school nutrition services, told reporter Douglas Moser the amount of food waste doubled at the start of this school year. The amount has tapered off since.
“I would say it was somewhat overwhelming at first,” Vespa told Moser. “We spent a couple months trading back and forth, trying to come up with new ideas and getting feedback not only from managers at the schools but the (cafeteria) line staff.”
Perhaps federal authorities have found the ultimate solution to the obesity “crisis”: Stop feeding kids altogether. However, it can’t be very healthy. Uneaten food has no nutritional value at all.
In addition to the focus on freshness, the federal rules that went into effect in September limit sodium, fat and total calories. The changes have not been popular.
Vespa said students have been throwing away the fresh fruit and vegetables untouched. They are eating the meat filling from sandwiches but tossing the whole grain buns.
The School Committee has been hearing complaints from parents and students.
“I’ve heard plenty of students say they’re unhappy,” committee member Lynne Hajjar Kumm said last week.
Hajjar Kumm called the new guidelines “burdensome” and an unwanted intrusion that is forcing schools to serve food many kids will not eat.
“The federal government, in my opinion, is dictating to the districts what we can and can’t serve,” she told Moser. “When you have to start having to limit not only sugar and fat but now salt, and it has to be fresh this and that, you’re going to find kids are not going to be as excited to get this.”
Massachusetts in 2011 created its own school nutrition guidelines that generally followed the federal government’s policies.
Vespa said he hopes that, over time, younger students will become accustomed to the new menu.
“After the third grade, they’ve already established their eating habits,” he said. “So it’s a long-time venture here. I think the initiative is really meant for kindergarten to third grade. If you can teach them at that age group that vegetables are a good thing, they’re fun, they’re nutritious, then when they get a little older, they’ll be more used to seeing these things on their tray.”
Vespa and his cafeteria staff are surely doing the best they can to serve tasty, healthy meals to Methuen’s children. The problem is not on their end. The problem is that they are operating under the constraints of a state and federal straitjacket that comes in one size -- small.
If school cafeterias handed each child a bag of candy for lunch, they would surely eat it all -- and their health would suffer terribly. But the “rabbit food” menu forced on schools is going uneaten, with equally dire consequences for students’ nutrition.
A sensible balance between nutrition and taste is needed. That’s something best left to local food service professionals, not government bureaucrats.