By Tyler Murphy
VOORHEESVILLE —Citing a drop in participation and a projected loss of about $32,000 by the end of the year, the Voorheesville School Board voted to abandon the current federal lunch program in favor of developing its own, saying recent changes to national guidelines had left students hungry and the district spending more.
As required by regulation, the board decided Monday to give the federal program 60 days’ notice, after which the school will implement its own health-focused school lunch plan on Feb. 8.
The board discussed options to replace lost federal aid at the meeting, which could involve increasing the cost of a regular lunch, currently at $2.25 for elementary students and $2.75 for middle and high school students.
Board members asked the district’s business office to look into alternative funding sources before considering a price hike and also requested a more detailed financial analysis of the lunch program. Though some members raised concerns, officials discussed possible increases of between 25 and 75 cents for regular meals.
The federal program the district is abandoning, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010 and began in September.
Following guidelines for healthy eating, to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity, the program restricts the options and amounts of food districts can offer. Its provisions limit calories, protein, sodium, and other items while emphasizing nutritional foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole wheat.
Parts of the program causing problems in Voorheesville, and nation wide, involves limited portion sizes; one requirement for example limits protein intake for high school students to only about a slice of deli meat, as a protein requirement per meal.
“I just don’t see how a 16-year-old football playing athlete only needs a slice of ham or a girls’ swimmer only eating two little chicken fingers all day long,” said Superintendent Teresa Snyder.
Student athletes have been leaving the school at the end of the day to go and get food at local eateries, like subway, before returning to school for practice, she said.
Though officials and parents have argued the amounts offered in the program aren’t enough some experts disagree, especially where athletes were concerned.
According to exhaustive research compiled by the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine on nutrition and athletic performance, “The fundamental differences between an athlete’s diet and that of the general population are that athletes require additional fluid to cover sweat losses and additional energy to fuel physical activity…. Accordingly, as energy requirements increase, athletes should first aim to consume the maximum number of servings appropriate for their needs from carbohydrate-based food groups (i.e., bread, cereals and grains, legumes, milk/alternatives, vegetables and fruits).”
It is also true, according to the same research, that energy and macronutrient needs, especially protein and carbohydrates to maintain blood glucose levels during exercise and replace muscle glycogen, are higher for athletes: carbohydrate recommendations for athletes range from 2.7 to 4.5 grams per pound of body weight per day; protein recommendations for endurance and strength-trained athletes range from .5 to .8 grams per pound of body weight per day.
That means, for example, a 200-pound athlete would require about a quarter-pound of protein during the day; so, in addition to the two ounces of protein in the school lunch, he would need another two ounces at breakfast and again at dinner if he is at the high end of the range.
Another mandatory stipulation requires students buy fruit with lunch, even if they don’t want it. School officials complain many students immediately throw the fruit away before sitting down to eat.
Snyder said elementary school students alone were throwing away about 30 to 40 pounds of fresh produce every day, with the high and middle school levels discarding about as much, if not more.
That means Voorheesville students are paying for, and throwing away, hundreds of pounds of fresh fruit every week.
“The fresh fruit also happens to cost us more. It’s one of the most expensive menu items we provide,” said Snyder.
Snyder also pointed out Voorheesville food-service director, Tim Mulligan, was a professional chef. She said Mulligan had great enthusiasm for his work but had his hands tied by the restrictive guidelines.
“We have a Culinary Institute-trained chef for our food services director. He can provide nutritious meals that students will eat,” she told the board.
One thing that is impacting the school’s bottom line is the loss of customers.
Since implementing the program at the beginning of the school year, the district has sold 3,964 fewer lunches than last year at this time, said Superintendent of Business Gregory Diefenbach. The school has sold a total of 25,330 meals so far this year.
The key to providing a cost-effective lunch is greater participation, said Diefenbach.
In order to create its own program, Voorheesville will not get federal aid connected to the lunch program, which covers about 31 cents of every dollar spent. The aid paid the district about $71,000 in the 2011-12 school year.
Asked how the school would account for the lost aid, Diefenbach replied, “At this rate we would have lost the money anyway.”
He said the aid formula was based on participation and other factors that were performing poorly under the new guidelines. Diefenbach estimated the school would only receive about $50,000 in aid this school year, due to lower participation, if it stuck with the federal program. Aid reduction isn’t the only issue, he explained, saying the district would also lose money because of poor sales.
With current trends, he said the lunch program would have a $32,000 shortfall by the end of the year.
Snyder said the funding and participation loss for the current federal lunch program could not be sustained.
“The cost reimbursement rates are cost prohibitive for us,” she said.
The district must continue to serve lunches under the federal guidelines for the next 60 days but, in the meantime, it has enhanced its alternative, A La Carte lunch option, which allows students to buy whatever they want but without the school receiving any aid reimbursement.
Typically, the A La Carte has a set menu selection, selling things like bagels and yogurt, but the school has begun creating special daily lunch items for the menu, much as it would the regular lunch.
The alternative program will allow the school to experiment with meal options for the next two months. The menu may take the place of regular lunch when the federal program expires.
Without advertising in advance Snyder said the district began offering the enhanced A La Carte options in the beginning of December with initial purchases in the first five days nearly doubling, even with the adult lunch sales.
With 6 percent of Voorheesville’s student body qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, based on family income, Diefenbach said the low percentage gave Voorheesville more flexibility than most districts in creating a new lunch option.
He said the new lunch program would continue to comply with state and federal guidelines for free and reduced-price lunches to students. The district would also still take advantage of the separate federal aid program for milk.
Since Voorheesville began contemplating abandoning the program last month, Diefenbach said he had been contacted by six other schools in the area also unsatisfied with their lunch program.
“I have six business cards on my desk from people asking me to call them once we get this figured out because they’re looking for alternatives, too,” he said.
The board will review the lunch program at its next meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Jan 14 in the high school’s large-group instruction room.