Out of Kitchen Main Image

Out of the Kitchen, Into the Cafeteria

This School Food Fight Is Just Getting Started
Photography by
James Chance

It’s an iconic, warmly-defended program bringing sustenance to the vulnerable who need it most: children at school who are happiest and perform best on a full stomach at breakfast and lunch.

It’s also a massive, lucrative battleground for competing interests in nutrition, big business and ideology, spending $16.5 billion a year to feed 32 million Americans a day.

The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are up for debate in the coming year, as Congress ponders reauthorizing a centerpiece food security effort in place since just after World War II. (Also up for renewal are WIC, providing food support to women, infants and children, and other adult food programs.)

In Colorado, schools are also rushing to join the new opportunities of Breakfast After the Bell, which boosts breakfast funding this fall in hundreds of schools where 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

And the debate over the quality of school food will only get louder, as some schools join with Big Food companies to seek a rollback of 2012 nutrition guidelines, and the Obama administration proposes a strict new round of marketing regulations for unhealthy school snacks.

The future of seeing the Coke logo in schools, or glimpsing a salad on every lunch tray, is up in the air.

“We don’t see it as either-or,” said Cody Belzley, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “Kids need food. And kids need healthy food. Given the political and economic climate, our primary focus is protecting what we have,” Belzley said of school nutrition programs.

Studies have now shown a large number of students are getting half their daily calories at school.

That will be challenging enough for advocates and policymakers in 2015, with the battles heating up even before political negotiators dig into details of basic funding levels.

The U.S. House of Representatives has pushed forward a plan to give school districts waivers from the 2012 nutrition-improvement guidelines if they can claim hardship in meeting the rules. The School Nutrition Association, a prime voice for school district food providers in each state, is backing the waivers, with research claiming the guidelines led to wasted fruits and vegetables, a loss of vital paying students that balance subsidized students, and higher costs to purchase supplies.

“School cafeterias have struggled with rising costs, red tape and plate waste, threatening the long-term sustainability of school meal programs,” according to an association handout that is also the official position of the group’s Colorado branch.

In Colorado, Douglas County School District announced over the summer it would allow its high schools to waiver from the nutrition guidelines, saying the tough restrictions were costing sales in a mobile and relatively affluent student population with other lunch options. The county said it was willing to lose the federal subsidy on those meals, but few other districts would find the option easy – Douglas County has a very low number of free and reduced-price student meals. (County officials also emphasized they had greatly improved their meal nutrition in the same direction as national guidelines, but were not willing to go as far as the mandate.)

Pueblo City Schools have found the tighter nutrition guidelines to be an “unfunded mandate,” said Jill Kidd, director of nutrition services. For example, a small bump in federal reimbursement does not pay for the second serving of fruit required on breakfast trays, she said.

The older district kitchens are not well-adapted to scratch cooking, while ethnic groups don’t all react the same way to new foods, she said. Whole-grain tortillas are sweeter and have an odd texture when dampened by food, turning off some traditional Hispanic families.

If I had a wish for the reauthorization, it would be to go back to more targets and patterns for meals, and stop being so prescriptive,” Kidd said.

Yet feelings within the association in Colorado are far from universal. Some of the larger school districts that jumped ahead of federal nutrition guidelines years ago with salad bars, more fruit items and a deep dive into scratch rather than processed foods, are happy with many of the changes.

“I don’t think they should loosen the nutrition standards, and I know that probably puts me in bad company with other food service directors,” said Theresa Hafner of Denver Public Schools, the largest district in the state with more than 80,000 enrolled and 50,000 eating daily lunch. “We’re already able to meet it. What I don’t want to see is a loosening on fruits and vegetables. We have a salad bar in every school and it’s working; we have not seen an increase in food waste. If you give the kids the control, they’ll make the good choices.”

“We want the standards to stay in place,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, a food security advocacy group.

Of districts seeking waivers from the tough guidelines, said Norwood Public Schools Food Service Director Sheila Henderson, “We’re not in that group at all!” After a sharp learning curve for staff and students, the Western Slope community learned to make creative adaptations with its budget and teach kids to embrace fresh foods.

Out of Kitchen Body Image 1
Lifting nutrition levels: Elsa Porras, a Denver Public Schools food service manager, bakes fresh wheat buns at Centennial Elemen

Norwood has used U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity dollars to buy produce from a Department of Defense homegrown program, picked fruit at a Colorado State University extension orchard and loaded up on local Olathe sweet corn, among other moves. “We didn’t really have any dip” in student participation, she said.

Health advocates, however, won’t be up against just the House, or a Senate with a likelier more conservative mix come January. They are also wrestling with Big Food companies, from General Mills to Cargill to Hormel, and more, that have given strong financial support to the national School Nutrition Association, according to reporting by former Denver Post writer Allison Sherry, now chief of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Washington, D.C., bureau. The food companies in public have been neutral on the waivers, but with half its funding coming from food makers, the association has aggressively sought the rollback.

In Colorado, food security advocates are playing offense instead of defense. Underhill said that after the passage of Breakfast After the Bell, otherwise known as House Bill 13-1006, “We now have the most aggressive school breakfast legislation in the country.”

The bill requires all Colorado schools with 80 percent or more of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch to serve a free breakfast to all students beginning this fall. In fall of 2015, the program expands to schools with 70 percent or more free and reduced-price students; in the first year, the plan brings breakfast to more than 40,000 new students.

There is a cost to the state, but leveraging the federal dollars is minimal. The state expects to spend about $170,000 on the first year of expansion, while the new meals bring in more than $14 million in USDA reimbursement.

Though Denver already had breakfast in some schools, the initiative will bring nutritious morning meals to more than 100 of the district’s 160 school buildings, Hafner said. The district is trying to allow local principals as much control in the design as possible, whether they encourage a community breakfast with parents and siblings also coming to the cafeteria, a “grab-n-go” offering or food at the classroom desks. “We think they’re excited about the choices we’ve given them – we have a team going out to talk to each new school that is eligible,” Hafner said.

Each nutrition push takes creativity and repetition, she said. Some students used to packaged food and brand names at first resist the district’s scratch-cooked blueberry muffins or breakfast burritos. That can mean a crucial loss of revenue from a la carte buyers not receiving the meal subsidy.

“We give out samples and ask people to try it,” Hafner said. “You have to introduce foods a number of times before they’ll actually adopt it.”

Food security proponents have bigger goals, even as they play offense locally and defense nationally. They would love to see a bolstering of summer meals for kids, by expanding a pilot that moved beyond congregate meals served at a central community location. The pilots added $30 to $60 a month to the Electronic Benefits Transfer card for students on food assistance. That can greatly improve nutrition in Colorado’s dozens of rural and frontier counties, where traveling to a central site is a challenge, Underhill said.

That’s good as far as it goes, said Joel Berg, an outspoken liberal advocate with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. But he’ll be seeking more from the 2015 school food reauthorization.

“We think it should be a bill moving towards ending hunger in America – it’s my opinion every school meal everywhere in America should be free, no matter of the income level,” Berg said. “And get a free breakfast meal as well.”


This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Health Elevations.