School lunches force CPS to operate on a deficit


Censored food: Freshman Marqtrel Harris stands in line to buy lunch. The new USDA regulations on the healthiness of all food items have caused the district to lose money to the food budget, along with more food waste. Photo by Devesh Kumar

Abby Kempf

Columbia Public Schools, along with every district in the nation, is struggling in the wake of new United States Department of Agriculture school lunch regulations.
These regulations have drained out food budgets, discouraged kids from buying school lunches and left administrators wondering what comes next.
“Every five years the USDA asks Congress if they can reauthorize the services of the child nutrition program. Congress says yea or nay, and they usually say yes. With that comes extra rules that are proposed by USDA. Part of 2010’s reauthorization was the use of nutrition guidelines as well as a plethora of other things attached to that particular initiative,” CPS Nutrition Services Director Laina Fullum said. “Basically the rule came down in 2010 and implementation started three years ago. Then about a year after the final rule came out, and implementation was required.”
Fullum said there is “definite direct correlation” between these new regulations and the decimation of school lunch reserves, which lost over $1,000,000 last year and is projected to lose nearly $700,000 this year.
“If everything stays as it has, we will be at $12,000 by the end of the year,” Superintendent Dr. Peter Stiepleman said. “In such a short amount of time our numbers have completely dried up, just to meet the requirements under new regulations.”
These new regulations have altered the way schools decide what to serve. Instead of allowing sweet splurges with the inclusion of leafy greens, every item found on the tray must be healthy by itself.
“The big change for us, and everyone nationwide, is that we moved away from nutrient based menu planning to a food based menu planning. The difference is in a nutrient based menu planning the things on the plate a student would carry through the lunch line would be added up and then you would divide it by their nutritional value they had to equal what would be considered nutritious. So, for example, you could have pudding, or Tollhouse cookies, but it would be canceled out by having spinach on your plate,”  Stiepleman said. “We had to move away from that. Now every single food has to be individually nutritious. That’s why the cookie has changed considerably in our school lunches. It is now smaller; it is whole grain. It has fewer chips, and, quite frankly, our kids tell us they hate it.”
Sophomore Toby Washer agrees. The verdict is in for school lunches, and it doesn’t look appealing. Lunches have shrunk in size and in flavor.
“I don’t like a lot of the food anymore because a lot of it is still really unhealthy and just kind of gross,” Washer said. “Usually when I buy lunch, I get the salads which are really small.”
The students not only are discouraged by the blandness of the food, but also by the increased cost of lunches.
“I never really purchased lunch here before,” Washer said. “But when I do buy it, there is a lot less. Sometimes I have to get extra food on the side. It does [cost more.]”
But these prices do not equate income for the district. Stiepleman said the number of students on free and reduced lunch plans has grown, while the number of students willing to pay extra for lunch has shriveled. This imbalance is devastating to a district that is used to making, not losing, money by selling lunches.
“Parents are packing lunch, or kids are making their own lunch and bringing it to school,” Stiepleman said. “Those who are on free and reduced lunch may still be participating in lunch, but what it costs us to get them that plate is much more expensive than what the government actually pays us for free lunch. It is a difference of about $1.30. We serve more than a million meals a year, so that quickly adds up to big losses for the school district.”
Once the school completely depletes the lunch budget, money will have to be used from the operating budget. The operating budget pays for teachers’ salaries, supplies, athletics, fine arts, and other school activities, Stiepleman said. “Significant cuts” must be made to keep the school out of deficit spending.
Now, administrators are trying to solve this issue before it spreads throughout the district. Stiepleman last week consulted with advisors for Senator Roy Blunt and Senator Claire McCaskill to share their concerns and ask for Washington D.C. to repeal these regulations.
“The solution is that USDA needs to back off and slow down. They have done too much, too fast. They did not pilot this anywhere, therefore they have no idea what the fiscal impact on schools would be. We need to go back and do nutrient standard menu planning. That is when we actually analyze our own menu, nutritiously,” Fullum said. “That gives us a lot more flexibility in our menu planning. The last thing is that they actually need to fund it. If they actually want us to serve healthy food, they need to increase the reimbursement that we receive for each of the meals.”
These unnecessary rules need to be removed to allow schools to avoid waste and utilize every cent they receive to feed students, Stiepleman said.
“We have to get apples and oranges of a certain size and certain weight. Everything has to be a certain weight. We have to tell kids you can’t come through the line without getting apples and then they go through the line and throw away the apple. So we are so concerned about all the waste. They said you can keep the apple and put it back into the supply, as long as it has been wrapped in plastic. We hire someone, we pay more money, we buy the wrap, they wrap the apple. So now we have spent even more money on these regulations that are really cumbersome and costly,” Stiepleman said. “If we don’t figure it out soon, it will be very difficult for us.”
By Abby Kempf