Are new USDA regs snacking around North Country schools?

Photo: mhiguera, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: mhiguera, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I remember when I was in high school, a big treat at lunch time was to go over to the school pool building and pick up some sugary delights from the vending machines therein. Never did I imagine, at that time (now more than 20 years ago), that th0se chlorine-scented treats would be so political.

But in the last few years, that’s become very much the case as school food has entered the national dialogues about both nutrition and school funding in a big way. Last year, 21st District congressional candidate Matt Doheny made the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act a campaign issue, arguing its restrictions left many students not getting enough to eat, and calling the rule a “fiat” being handed down from Washington. In December of 2012 the USDA relaxed its rules on school lunches, although USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the rules were ensuring students who ate school lunch were receiving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

What the USDA did do was to do away with calorie limits on meat and grains, saying

This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.

A few months later, the Watertown Daily Times is reporting on how schools are preparing for new USDA regulations that will begin in a year, on foods like chocolate bars and packaged cookies that aren’t part of the “official” lunch, which was what was regulated until now. Turns out that although there are some concerns about the new regulations (more in a moment), some school leaders aren’t seeing the need to make big changes, because they’ve already been going down this path for a while.

One example is the Watertown City School District, whose food service director Craig P. Orvis says “I think it’s going to affect us, but in a very small way given that the kindergarten through sixth buildings have no vending machines.” So for that district vending machines aren’t a major issue — but it will have to be careful not to sell “snacks” like nachos or cupcakes until 30 minutes after the school day officially ends 30 minutes after the end of classes.

But (of course, like anything having to do with the bizarrely complicated issue of school food) it’s not so simple. The high school sells homemade cookies and ice cream, which will have to be tested to make sure they meet sugar and calorie restrictions; and, although elementary school kids don’t have vending machines, there is a vending machine at the high school that may have to just be turned off during school hours.

In Carthage, where vending machines are also restricted to middle and high school kids (and where some high fat and calorie options have been replaced by healthier ones), Carthage Central School Food Service Director Christine Thoma told the paper that money’s an issue. She said the school lost money with last year’s restrictions (whole wheat burger buns cost more than white ones, for example), and a further loss of revenue from what’s called “a la carte” items would be, well, bad: “We depend on those additional revenues.” The picture is further complicated by new restrictions on school breakfast options, which I won’t go into here.

With school funding in constant danger and both fiscal and educational insolvency a serious worry in many of the North Country’s school districts (here’s a recent example of what some schools are doing to try to remedy the situation), this is a reasonable concern and one that’s bound to be on the mind of the person responsible for feeding hundreds of school children. But it’s troubling that we have to think, when we’re talking about feeding our kids well, about balancing that need with revenue, especially for education.

4 Comments on “Are new USDA regs snacking around North Country schools?”

Leave a Comment
  1. Pete Klein says:

    The simple solution to all of these nonsense is to go back in time and bring your lunch to school with the food and snacks you want to eat.
    I know. I know. I was deprived because I went to Catholic schools where money was not wasted on cafeterias or gyms. We just got educated and ate our lunches at our desks and went out to play on the play ground – or went home for lunch if home was close enough to eat and return within 45 minutes.

  2. Paul says:

    Pete, yes going back to the old pail on a stick is one option, but you would be surprised at how many kids only get to eat because they have school lunches. An important reason for a these half days you see at school is so kids can at least get something to eat. Pete, you and I in our catholic schools were pretty lucky to have what we had in our paper bags.

    Now I do have a serious problem with some of this regulatory stuff. I think I heard that “bake sales” may be a target of the USDA on this one. Really?

  3. tootightmike says:

    Nora gets 10 demerits for constructing that un-readable title.

  4. Nora Flaherty says:

    I thought it was such a clever pun but apparently it didn’t quite work…ah well.

Leave a Reply