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.
David 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 Tribune, the 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.]
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