BENNINGTON -- Sen. Patrick Leahy and other lawmakers are weighing the impact of federal school lunch requirements that took effect this fall and looking to make improvements in the wake of mixed reviews across the nation.
Officials from area schools spoke Wednesday with a field representative from Leahy’s office who has been collecting feedback to relay to the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Issues with the law have varied across Vermont, but in Bennington, where the poverty rate in some schools is greater than 70 percent, the biggest concern is whether children are getting enough to eat due to the law’s limited flexibility.
New regulations from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 increased nutritional standards this school year by reducing salt limits, requiring more whole grain, and creating strict calorie limits on every meal based on nutritional standards per age group. Portions of a meal’s total calorie requirement must come from specific food groups. For instance, every lunch for a senior in high school is required to average one to two ounces of meat and grain (half of which must be whole grain), at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetable, and one cup of milk every day. Further, vegetable intake must include "dark green," "red or orange," "beans or peas," "starches," and "other" every week.
The new law was the first change to school food requirements in more than 15 years, which Leahy said was much needed and has shown many positive results around the country.
"Changes like these can be difficult, and adjustments take time. This is the first major federal change to school lunch requirements in more than 15 years. The goal of these new standards is to improve quality and offer healthier options by giving kids more whole grains and fresh fruit and vegetables," Leahy said. "Already there are some early success stories under the new guidelines. The Vermont Food Directors Association has collected data that shows that servings of fruits and vegetables to students has risen from five to ten times since last year. Some schools are seeing an increase in the number of students buying lunch at school because of the improved quality."
There have also been ill effects of the law, though. Richard Pembroke, chief financial officer for Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and Maureen O’Neil, food service director of The Abbey Group, were critical of the law’s strictness when speaking to Leahy’s representative, Chris Saunders.
Many children do not eat all of the items they are served, and instead of being offered a choice to take something else, they must take an item they will not eat, they noted.
"If a student can only have 800 calories for lunch, let them get it from what they want to. Right now the government is saying 100 of it is going to come from fruit. Well, if a student throws the fruit away they aren’t actually getting that 800," O’Neil said.
Given that some children rely on the schools for food, Pembroke said the concern is even greater.
"We have a high poverty area and for a lot of kids this is their only meal. We need more flexibility in the calorie count to provide those calories because if the kids aren’t going to take something or they’re going to throw it out, it’s not doing anybody any good," Pembroke said. "We’d be better off for them to get two more slices of meat than to throw the apple out."
The nine schools in the SVSU reduced waste earlier in the year by placing "fruit return bins" in every cafeteria, allowing children who did not want their fruit to place it in a bin so other children could take it. That program was shut down by the Vermont Department of Health because state law, based on federal recommendation, does not allow food to be redistributed. The law forbidding unwanted food from being reused was also discussed Wednesday.
"By what they’re required to take and that some of them won’t eat it, and now the Health Department not allowing us to recycle ... it’s just generating a ton of waste," Pembroke said.
According to media reports, there are schools in other regions of the state that have similar return programs that have not been shut down.
Another concern O’Neil brought up is the additional financial burden the law places on food service providers.
The Abbey Group, like many food service providers, is in a multi-year contract with the SVSU schools, so while there is additional expense, the payment from the school has not changed. The federal government has increased its reimbursement six cents per meal to help defray the costs, but studies estimate lunches are costing from 32 to 48 cents more per meal due to the new standards, O’Neil said.
Leahy said adding federal reimbursement to help defray costs was a struggle.
"It wasn’t easy to get that additional reimbursement, and this was the first increase above the cost of inflation in more than 30 years. For schools that hadn’t prepared for changes, this is a lot at once. But our early adopters prove that it can be done and that it can be financially workable," he said.
As Leahy’s representative continues to visit schools across the state, the senator said he will continue to assess the effectiveness of the new requirements.
"As we assess both the positive effects and remaining challenges, I will continue to work with Vermont schools and USDA as these new regulations are implemented to help Vermont continue to lead the nation in offering nutritious school meals," he said.
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