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School Lunch Waivers: Perspectives of a Food Service Director and Two Students

The debate over nutritional requirement for food in schools has hit another milestone. In April 2013, the U.S.D.A. announced “Smart Snacks in Schools”, a new round of rules that would regulate all of the food available for purchase in schools, including vending machine snacks. Earlier this month, a NY Times article laid out the history of school lunch regulations, including legislation that wrote “Smart Snacks in Schools” into law. The law recently passed with a waiver provision intact allowing schools to opt out the Smart Snacks standards of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Food Literacy Center reached out to Miguel Villarreal for his perspective because his approach as a Food Service Director is a model for what school lunches should look like.

Recently we have heard lots of rhetoric on both sides of the issue regarding the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) nutritional standards.  There are those that stand behind it, who I’m very much aligned with, and there are those that want some “flexibility” in the  nutritional standards.   I will make my case in two segments.  First, by offering my perspective on the issue and second, by actually asking students what they think about Congress’ waivers.  I have not seen or heard anyone have an open dialogue no the subject with a student. I happen to have an eleven year old daughter to provide insight, along with a 16 year old HS student that will be holding a culinary camp for kids from disadvantaged families this summer in our school district.

Let’s be honest, the HHFKA  nutrition standards were unfunded mandates or under funded mandates.  School food service programs received an entire 6 cents for serving healthier school lunches in schools. Now $.06 is not going to cover much, $.06 represents less than one fourth of a serving of fruit. Is the answer then to have waivers to opt out of these regulations?  Absolutely NOT!  In fact, it’s an opportunity to re-educate our community and re-evaluate school lunch programs.  Some programs, like our food service program in Novato, CA, started down a healthier path over 12 years ago.  It was not easy then and it is not easy now to keep financial budgets in line, but we knew that moving forward with healthful food alternatives was the right thing to do for the future of our children’s health.

School food service operators must get creative and use their business savvy to keep the program fiscally sound.  They also need to collaborate with their internal and external partners to help them achieve their goals. For instance, increasing breakfast participation involved many partners, including the School Board, Superintendent, Chief Financial Officer, Principals, teachers, food service staff, custodians,  parents and students.

I’m a believer in mandates, such as those imposed on school food service programs because it forces people out of their “comfort zone”.  Other mandates that would help our school food service programs and create a culture of wellness in schools and communities:

  • Minimum of 20 minutes to eat lunch once child gets their food.
  • A mid-morning breakfast break that lasts at least 10 minutes.
  • Recess before lunch in all elementary schools.
  • Every high schools has a closed campus.
  • Mobile food trucks not allowed on school grounds during school.
  • Daily nutrition education in all classrooms from Kinder – 12th grade.

Isabella Villarreal, my eleven year old daughter, responds to Congress waivers:

Schools are saying that they are losing money because the healthy food that they are serving is too expensive and that junk food is the only food that kids will eat. But what will that junk food do to the inside of their body? Or to their focus in class, and their ability to learn? Considering all the research we have on junk food, from the MSG to the food dye, why would people give it to children when we need healthy food to fuel our bodies? A lot of schools are saying that Congress should allow waivers, what do you think?

I think that Congress should not pass waivers, because it is unethical to give bad food to kids. These school lunches can be contributing to childhood obesity and health issues. If kids are served bad food in school, it’s almost like having a bad teacher. If the teacher is not good at his/her job, what are you learning? If bad food is served to you at school, it’s as if your school isteaching you to eat unhealthy food. School is supposed to be a place where kids play, meet new friends, and learn new things. If they aren’t eating healthy they may not have the energy or focus to do that.

Some kids go to school, excited for their lunch time because they know that the food will be good and nutritious. So they know when they go to recess, they will get a boost from that food to play and have fun, they will also have that boost in class. I know that kids will indeed eat healthy food if given the option, I have seen it with my own eyes, and I’ve experienced it myself. They say that it takes 15 tries for people’s taste buds to adjust to a new foods like greens. There are 180 days in a school year and a large majority of students eat from the cafeteria every day so I think that their taste buds will adjust.

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Elena Dennis, a HS Junior, at Branson School response to Congress waivers:

When I was in 3rd grade, I learned a song called “Dirt Made My Lunch.” It talked about how everything we consume leads back its original starting place, a seed in a bed of soil. It was comforting to be able to trust that all of the ingredients that made up my wholesome lunch were grown naturally with care.

Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Large manufacturing companies are taking over the once healthy and nutritious school lunch industry and transforming our children’s lunches into chemicals. Although cost-effective, these lunches will not provide kids with the necessary fruits, vegetables, and whole grains they need to sustain themselves every day. By allowing schools to opt out of the school meal standards with a waiver, Congress is putting the future generation’s health at risk. America has come a long way in raising the standards of food in public schools; supplying this waiver would put our efforts back to square one.

It is essential to teach children the importance of making the right food decisions to leading healthy lives. We can start by showing them why this amendment should not pass in Congress. We need to raise awareness among elementary and middle schoolers about the significance of nutrition. Dirt should make children’s lunches, not French Fry companies.

Follow Miguel Villarreal on Twitter @novatowellness1 or on Facebook at Novatowellness.

Miguel Villarreal, holds a BA of Science in Food and Nutrition and a MBA in Business with 32 years experience as Director of Nutritional Services in Texas and California schools.  He has worked for the Novato Unified School District since 2002.  Throughout the past 32 years he has implemented innovative strategies for improving children’s nutritional health by modifying menus to include more whole, local, sustainable foods and less processed foods. His work is also focused on creating “Total School Nutrition and Wellness Environments” for students by collaborating with student youth groups, parents, teachers, administrators, healthcare organizations, universities, Farm to School affiliates, and numerous allied organizations.  Miguel is an active member of  several National, State, and local organizations focused on educating and improving student’s well being and is frequently asked to speak at wellness venues.  He also serves on both the California and National Farm to School network as an advisory board member.

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