District 214 may drop out of National School Lunch Program

Northwest Suburban High School District 214 may drop out of the National School Lunch Program next year due to what officials called restrictive changes in the law.

On Thursday night, Christine Frole, director of food and nutrition services, presented a new meal plan to the school board that she said would give students more choices, while still being healthy.

The change comes in advance of a new “Smart Snacks in Schools” law that goes into effect July 1. The law will mandate what can be served, not only for reimbursable meals, but for all food items available in the morning, during the school day and 30 minutes after school ends, including food sold at a fundraiser such as a bake sale, food in vending machines and school stores and school breakfast.

“The loss of revenue for both the food service program and student activity fundraisers is believed to be substantial,” according to a district memo.

Frole said the standards would prevent common items such as baked goods and a la carte snacks, but also items such as hummus, hard-boiled eggs and nonfat milk more than 12 ounces.

“I'm a little cranked up over this,” said Superintendent Dave Schuler, who said the rules, part of an anti-obesity campaign pushed by the Obama administration, seem to have gone too far.

Frole said she has been working on an opt out plan with her staff since the law was passed in 2013 and built a new menu with feedback from surveys, focus groups and taste tests among both students and staff.

“We are committed to serving nutritious meals and snacks while providing the variety to keep students satisfied,” she said.

Frole said students will not see a difference in the price of lunch because of the changes.

Under the National School Lunch Program, District 214 schools offer three different lunch choices daily, but Frole said next year it will be between 10 and 12.

New offerings will include grilled chicken breast, falafel, Mediterranean hummus wrap, and a feta, apple and edamame salad.

Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch will still receive one based on the same federal guidelines, she said.

Other districts in the area have opted out of the program in recent years including Maine Township High School District 207, Glenbrook District 225, Niles District 219 and Stevenson High School District 125, Frole said.

Dropping out of the school lunch program will mean less government money for the district, which received about $900,000 for serving reimbursable meals last year. Schuler and Frole said they both expect the department to make up the financial difference with increased sales and tightening corners elsewhere. The district would also still continue to participate in the USDA-funded Special Milk Program, which provides reimbursement for milk bought.

Officials said that if they decide to opt out, they will evaluate the program after one year to see if it still makes sense financially and for the students.

Board members asked how they could be sure the food would be healthy, which was one of the main points of the new school lunch laws.

“We're committed to nutrition first,” said Frole, a registered dietitian who has been with the district for three years.

“The portion sizes (under the new mandates) are also so much smaller. Our kids are not going to be full,” Schuler said. “If a kid has a choice between a free bad meal or a bag of Cheetos, they will pick the bag of Cheetos and that's even less healthy.”

Frole said that with the changes, national school lunch sales have gone down 17 percent in the past few years.

“I'm sure everyone looking at this had the best of intentions,” said board President Bill Dussling, “but it falls off the edge when nobody's going to eat it.”

The board will vote whether or not to opt out of the National School Lunch Program at its next meeting on May 8.

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