Posted in: United States

Food for Thought

By | August 24, 2015

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Graduation caps had been tossed in the air, diplomas handed out, and students released for the summer. But for the IT department in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the work was just beginning. LAUSD’s cafeteria management system, which helps order food for schools and manages meal account data for over 640,000 students, needed major software upgrades, and the only opportunity for the IT department to implement them was during the short time between graduation and summer school. “It was down to the minute. At 3:00, schools were to be off the system … and by 9:00 the central office upgrade would take place,” LAUSD deputy director of food services Laura Benavidez told the HPR.

If the time crunch didn’t place enough pressure on the IT team, there was also the fact that a failed upgrade could disrupt the first day of summer school for thousands of students and cafeteria workers. LAUSD’s Food Services Division prepared for the worst, ordering a month’s worth of food in advance and preparing manual backup processes in case anything went wrong. Extensive pre-planning allowed LAUSD to implement one of the largest school cafeteria management system upgrades in U.S. history.

About 21 million of the nation’s children rely heavily on school meal programs to meet their dietary needs. For school districts like LAUSD, where nearly eight out of 10 students live at or below the poverty level, federally assisted meal programs are especially vital. LAUSD’s upgrade of its cafeteria management system highlights the technical challenges that school districts across the country face in feeding their students. However, school districts also face a host of organizational and regulatory challenges as they try to adequately feed their students nutritious meals—and the rules governing the cafeteria have become more contentious.

“Summer Meal Champions”

For decades, child developmental researchers and educators alike have known that a healthy diet can help students concentrate better in school and may improve academic performance. Congress also understood the role that food and nutrition played in education, passing the National School Lunch Act in 1946 and the Child Nutrition Act in 1966 to ensure that students had access to healthy and nutritious school lunches. Since then, the government has expanded the federal educational meal program to include provisions for breakfasts during the school year and meals during the summer through the Summer Food Service Program.

While the Summer Food Service Program helps reduce child hunger by providing summer meals to 3.8 million children, this number pales in comparison to the 21 million that rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school year. This alarming reality has lead the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Education to launch a campaign to encourage local governments and schools to partner with community leaders to provide summer meals. Using social media to promote the campaign and providing a toolkit for so-called “Summer Meal Champions,” the two agencies hope that the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Summer Food Service Program will be marked by a 13 million-meal increase over last year’s performance.

Some school districts and communities have answered to the call to action. For example, LAUSD, the L.A. Recreation and Parks Department, and other local partners provided meals at a total of 407 different sites this summer. However, Benavidez explains, the difficulty lay in getting students to come to the meal sites. “We do a media release, we present in the paper, and we do some other media-related promoting. Our end result is that we generally serve 35,000 or 36,000 meals a day in the summer. But that’s not even 10 percent of what we serve for lunch on a daily basis [during the school year].”

While LAUSD benefits from its size and extensive administrative leadership, other school districts and communities are often unable to make the accommodations necessary to run a successful summer meal program. As Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation deputy director Emily Broad Leib told the HPR, fully funding summer meal programs is also an issue: “There’s a per-meal reimbursement but not really additional money for the time spent by the people running and administering the program.” Some school districts that successfully implement a summer meal program often only do so for a portion of the summer due to the administrative challenges.

President Obama signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, DC.

President Obama signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, DC.

The Capitol Hill Food Fight

Sometimes federal programs are able to cover these costs; however, school meals have recently become the center of a Washington, D.C. policy battle. When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010, Democrats hailed its new nutritional guidelines as a step forward in improving children’s health while Republicans retorted that it was overly strict and would unnecessarily burden school meal programs across the nation. This year, Congress is considering whether to reauthorize the provisions for school meals before they expire on September 30.

The current Republican-dominated Congress has drawn attention to the setbacks caused by the nutritional regulations set in 2010. On June 24, South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp testified to the House Education and the Workforce Committee that several school districts in her state have dropped out of the school meals program because of the regulations. Democratic leaders on the committee, however, insisted that these regulations are necessary. A week earlier, ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) highlighted the fact that the United States has the second highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, adding that 95 percent of schools have been able to comply with the regulations.

In fact, many school districts were able to implement the 2010 measures rather quickly. LAUSD, for example, implemented the measures by 2011, three years ahead of the deadline—although it was already taking measures to implement healthier school meals prior to the law’s passage. Benavidez cited the district’s Healthy Beverage Motion of 2002 and Obesity Prevention Motion of 2003 as examples of the local push for nutrition in schools.

Corporate Comestibles

Other opponents to the national food legislation argue that nutritional regulations discourage students from eating school meals. North Carolina Chief of School Nutrition Services Lynn Harvey testified to the Education and Workforce Committee on June 24 that in her state, “student participation in school meals has declined by five percent under the new rules—a loss of nearly 13 million meals in two years.” Harvey reported that food waste has gone up as children throw away the healthy meal items they are mandated to receive in their lunch. If the new regulations were causing some students to opt out of eating a school lunch, it would seem to contradict the goal of the original Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act: to ensure that all students had access to lunch during the school week.

However, some disagree with the notion that nutritional regulations deter students from eating school meals. Dr. Eric Rimm, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health who has studied the effects of nutritional regulations in Massachusetts, told the HPR, “What we found was that by the time they got to the end of the year, [students] were actually throwing away less food than they were before the regulations went into place.” Rimm added that the students who chose not to eat school meals after the regulations took effect were often the same ones who refused to eat school meals before the changes. Thus, while the regulations may have discouraged some students from eating school lunches, his research suggests that most students have accepted healthier school meals.

As of the writing of this article, Congress only has a few weeks to decide whether to keep school meal regulations rigid or to loosen the standards to permit greater flexibility and ease for school districts. As the deadline draws near, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) has introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, which would lower the restrictions on schools lunches enacted five years ago. With Republicans bringing in new proponents of the bill to testify at each Education and the Workforce committee hearing on the subject, it seems that the legislation may move forward.

For many health experts, the proposed bill is frustrating. “The regulations were put into effect because this is where the best science was for health in children,” Rimm said. “And now through lobbying some of these are being rolled back.” Rimm sees a financial motivation behind the effort. “There’s a lot of money in it for [the regulations] to be rolled back so large food companies can continue to sell relatively unhealthy foods through the National School Lunch Program.”

Indeed, large food companies have a financial incentive to oppose the regulations. Schools spend billions every year purchasing food products. Even before Davis introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, major food companies lobbied for a separate bill that would have allowed schools to receive one-year waivers from the nutritional regulations. They often did this under the guise of larger umbrella organizations with benign names, such as the School Nutrition Association, an association funded in large part by food companies like Schwan’s Food Service, a major provider of pizza to schools.

For Broad Leib, another major concern is that if nutritional guidelines are relaxed, they will be difficult to reinstate later. However, local action may still ensure that nutritional and healthy meals are served to students even if federal regulations are rolled back. The Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation is currently working to produce a toolkit to improve school food and nutrition education at the state and local level. Broad Leib said that a central component will discuss changing school food culture so that students become more educated about what they eat and more eager to eat the healthier options they are served. “We need to have kids connect more with the food their eating,” Rimm added.

Some school districts are already taking these suggestions. LAUSD, for example, serves breakfast in the classroom and meals on round plates rather than square trays to create a familial atmosphere for students. Steps like these may help reduce food waste and encourage students to take their healthy habits home.

Laura Benavidez believes that such measures are crucial to ensuring that students get fed. “Eating well is not a privilege,” she said. “It’s a right.”

Image Credits: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr, Nancy Pelosi / Flickr

Update (11/23/15): This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect editing changes in the print edition.

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