I’m Getting *Really* Sick of Hearing About Those Hard-Boiled Eggs

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 29, 2014

Earlier this month, a school district in suburban Chicago made news when it announced its plan to opt out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), forgoing $900,000 a year in federal funds.

Hard Boiled eggsDavid Schuler, superintendent of Township High School District 214, made a sympathetic case for the district’s decision, telling public radio’s Here and Now that the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act were just too restrictive to allow the district to serve its students the healthy food they needed.  In explaining “why the federal program doesn’t work for his students,” he said:

It really comes down to the amount. You know, like, a hard-boiled egg can no longer be served because it’s too high in fat. Skim milk over 12 ounces can’t be served. The portion sizes are much smaller than in the past. So for high school athletes who are looking to eat and be full, it’s just not working for us.

As you might imagine, this Illinois district quickly became the poster child of those on the political right who are currently fighting hard to roll back the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements.  For example, in her latest angry screed against Obama-backed school food reform (and she’s written others), conservative pundit Michelle Malkin applauded District 214 for voting itself out of “the unsavory one-size fits all mandate:”

Last week, the state’s second largest school district decided to quit the national school lunch program altogether. Officials pointed out that absurd federal guidelines prevented them from offering hard-boiled eggs, hummus, pretzels, some brands of yogurt, and nonfat milk in containers larger than 12 ounces.

Similarly, on CNN Out Front last night, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), author of a bill which would allow some districts to opt out of the HHFKA, again invoked the sad specter of District 214, a district just trying to offer its kids more wholesome hard-boiled eggs and skim milk but stymied by Big Government regulations.  At the 1:20 mark he says:

Well, the problem is, these rules are so onerous, they really go beyond reason.  I was just reading an article just a couple of weeks ago about a school in Illinois [sic] has decided to get completely out of the program because a boiled egg does not meet the standards that are coming out of USDA, and anything over twelve ounces of skim milk has too much fat in it for these standards.

So we’re not talking about, you know, feeding hamburgers and hot dogs and pizza everyday to kids.  The nutrition workers in these lunch rooms, they want to provide healthy foods for their kids.  They’re wanting to do the right thing. And it’s not like they’re trying to make these kids obese.

But are we sure about that last bit?

Here’s what no one on the right wants to tell you about District 214.  According to the Chicago Tribunethe district is not opting out of the NSLP to give kids more healthy foods like hard-boiled eggs and skim milk, but to preserve the

$2.2 million in annual food service revenue that comes from the a la carte menu, which sells things like pizza, fries and Subway sandwiches. The district also said it gets $543,000 in revenue from vending machines.

In other words, if District 214 stays in the NSLP, starting this July it will have to implement the new Smart Snacks in Schools rules — rules which would bring to a screeching halt its lucrative business of selling fries, pizza and other junk food to its school children.

In a way, though, you have to admire District 214 for being so open about its motivations with the Chicago Tribune reporter:

The district said it is “relatively certain” that Smart Snacks will cause it to lose more than the subsidy is worth because it only gets reimbursed for meals served.

“We could lose (money) even if we stay in if students don’t purchase the food because they don’t like it,” said Superintendent David Schuler.

The district reassured the Chicago Tribune that its non-NSLP menu “will still be healthy,” but given this district’s past, enthusiastic reliance on junk food sales to make millions at the expense of its student health, you have to wonder if it will make good on that promise.  And without the oversight of the NSLP, who will be looking out for the reported 2,800 students in District 214 who qualify for free lunch and are therefore completely dependent upon the district for daily nutrition?

Right wingers like Malkin like to equate the NSLP with Nanny State overreach, but when student health is directly pitted against the financial interests of a school district, isn’t that precisely when we need a nanny  to look out for the welfare of kids?

Whatever you think about District 214′s opting out of the NSLP, though, let’s be clear about one thing:  this isn’t about hard-boiled eggs.

[Ed. Update 5/30/14:  I hadn't thought to do so when I posted this, but today I visited District 214's food services website.  Take a look.]

district 214 menu

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Christen Cooper, MS, RD May 29, 2014 at 10:21 am

Thanks for this great post. Money is the bottom line for District 214 indeed.

I am wondering when educators–EDUCATORS…SCHOOLS–are going to stand up as adults and say, “Hey, sorry you don’t like this food, kids, but this what we know to be healthy and the best form of nutrition for performing well in school. Taxpayers are paying for this food and this is a place of learning, and thus healthful food is the only kind of food that’s appropriate here. We can’t afford more obese and sick people in this country and so if we’re teaching and we’re paying, this is lunch.”

I am writing my doctoral dissertation on teacher influences on preschoolers’ food choices. Having the right foods in the school is a big part of teaching kids about healthy eating.

Chris Cooper, MS, RD

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 29, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Chris: I think, in essence, that’s what the HHFKA is doing on a federal level – telling schools and kids that we’re getting out of the business of selling junk. The problem is, school districts are left holding the financial bag in terms of increased costs and food waste when kids don’t get on board immediately with the new regime. If you haven’t yet read it, in this post I explain how very sympathetic I am for the plight of school food service directors and how I wish it wasn’t a kids vs. FSDs proposition.

Thanks for your comment and I want to read your dissertation!

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Christen Cooper, MS, RD May 29, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Bettina,

I totally agree: It’s especially sad that kids are in the middle. As a professor who supervises nutrition students who do field work at elementary schools, I have grown tired of the school/parent argument: “But kids don’t like healthy food!” My answer is: If we don’t change what we put forth as “good food” (at least in a place of learning), we aren’t creating healthful school food environments.

Amen to all, Bettina. I’ll be following you. And I will inflict my dissertation on you if you insist.

Best,
Chris

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Lunch Lady May 29, 2014 at 10:23 am

I kinda get their point.

As I know you are aware, all Food Service departments operate as enterprise funds which means they MUST be in the black at the end of the fiscal year. If they are not, they the school district must give money from their General Fund to bring the Food Service department into the black. This takes money away from the classroom.

If this district is very affluent, then the Food Service department is not getting very much money in federal reimbursement. A la carte sales may be the only way they are able to stay in the black.

The district may be deciding to opt out of NSLP because they don’t want to waste tax payer money bailing out the Food Service department.

IMHO, we should be doing free for all students … and I don’t mean everyone just elects to do Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). (Side note on CEP: Most districts don’t have direct certification percentage of 40% (but it really needs to be 62.5% to get the 100% reimbursement and not have to find non-federal funds to make up the difference). Also, it is completely messing up Title 1 intradistrict distribution, not to mention e-Rate and EMIS data.)

Oh … And the hard boiled egg thing is true. We have to take it off our a la carte menu next year, too. I can still offer Baked Lays and whole grain rich cookies, but not a hard boiled egg.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 29, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Lunch Lady:

Thanks for this comment and I agree – this is clearly an affluent district and it may make perfect financial sense for them to opt out.

But this emphasis by the district and by Republicans on hard-boiled eggs is a red herring for two reasons. First, they never tell you that they’re speaking about eggs not qualifying as a competitive food (which I’d never heard before and agree is crazy), leaving one with the impression that the school meal regulations are so restrictive you can’t give kids eggs for lunch. Second, if a school is making millions selling pizza and fries as competitive food — and is on record as saying that it does so precisely because kids are spurning the healthier meal — then I have to believe that the percentage of hard-boiled eggs and skim milk sold as part of their overall competitive food mix is extremely low. The real concern is that the pizza and fries, along with those eggs, will go by the wayside if they stick with the NSLP.

So all I’m asking is that everyone be candid about what’s going on here – this district will make more money selling a la carte junk food than it will selling healthy meals and due to its low free/reduced population, that’s what it’s choosing to do.

Thanks as always for your comments here.

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Hanna May 29, 2014 at 11:35 am

Wow, Bettina, this is fascinating, complicated, and upsetting. And Lunch Lady, thanks for your clarifying comment–that helps me understand the district’s (potential) perspective better. But still, this is a stark example of how our current system directly sets up public health (of children, which I think is even worse) as an obstacle to financial success. And that is the most upsetting part for me.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 29, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Me, too, Hanna. Sigh.

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Hanna May 30, 2014 at 8:27 am

P.S. I was talking with my roommate about this last night, who teaches 3rd grade at a public school in the Boston area. She said that her school lunch program also depends on a la cart for financial stability (or claims to, at least). Because of the local wellness policy, the a la carte items are supposed to be some version of healthy…but Doritos counts. So she told me about a kid in her class who is very overweight and also has a host of behavioral issues. His parents give him money for a la carte on an electronic system and so he can spend it on whatever he wants. Every day, he buys at least 4 bags of Doritos and several capri-suns. He’s started a trend in class where it’s cool to bring Doritos after lunch, and because they have the early lunch, my friend is not allowed to tell students they can’t have snacks in class. So her whole class is hyped up (and then crashing) on Doritos and juice every day…. And this is in one of the ostensibly more health-conscious (well, at least wealthier, with several Whole Foods around) Boston suburbs.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 30, 2014 at 10:09 am

Stories like this are excellent examples of why schools need to get out of the business of selling junk food. And even when the Smart Snacks rules are in place, I suspect there will still be a fair amount of highly processed, “better-for-you” junk food liked baked chips, etc.. This is where you really see the need for solid nutrition education in our schools, as clearly this child is not getting it at home. :-(

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MadisonStreet May 31, 2014 at 8:08 am

Awesome (and biting) piece! Profit knows no mercy….

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 31, 2014 at 10:46 am

Thank you!

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 5, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Thank you, MadisonStreet!

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Claire June 2, 2014 at 1:15 am

Great analysis! As a 2011 D214 alum, I’m not at all surprised that the district decided to drop out in the face of Smart Snacks enforcement. While I, who as a vegan/health-nut literally never once bought lunch at school, would have loved to see some hummus and falafel offered*, I am also aware that it would not be the most popular menu item, by far. What is hugely popular: the vending machines, the fast-food lunches, and the Snack Bar, an entire section of the cafeteria devoted to chips, candy, nachos, ice cream, muffins, and massive monster cookies. Because many students bring lunches or eat off campus, I would guess that a sizable portion of actual school lunches sold go to free and reduced-price lunch students, limiting the amount of money the schools make from these lunches. However, many of the students who bring lunches or go off campus to eat do frequent the vending machines and snack bar before or in between classes, or to supplement their lunches with a pop or a candy bar. While it would be awesome to limit the availability of snack bar items from a health perspective (as I argued in a school newspaper article my junior year), doing so would probably be financial suicide for the lunch program, and I absolutely agree with you that they would probably lose about the amount of money that they now are by opting out of the NSLP.

*Also, where WAS this concern about hummus and falafel and, sure, hard boiled eggs, when I was in high school three short years ago? They didn’t serve them before the regulations (unless things have changed) so why now, other than to provide a palatable reason for leaving the NSLP? When I spoke to my school dietician about the lack of healthy lunch options for above-mentioned school newspaper article, she cited the government subsidies for meat, milk, etc., as well as student taste preferences, and maybe going off the federal school lunch program will open up more leeway there, which would be cool, since the dietician did seem sincerely concerned about the status quo and its detriment to student health. However, the continued ubiquity of processed snacks, sugary drinks, and 600-calorie cookies is obviously a far more serious problem, as I’m guessing the students who would purchase hummus and falafel over a slice of pizza are those who are most likely making healthy food choices already.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 5, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Claire, sorry for the late reply to this comment. It’s very interesting to hear from a District 214 alum and get confirmation of what’s described in the Chicago Tribune piece. This quote of yours is exactly my point: “where WAS this concern about hummus and falafel and, sure, hard boiled eggs, when I was in high school three short years ago? They didn’t serve them before the regulations (unless things have changed) so why now, other than to provide a palatable reason for leaving the NSLP?” Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here.

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