Food fight: The fallout over free school lunches

A student serves up dessert to classmates during lunch at the People for People Charter School in Philadelphia.

The National School Lunch Program, which feeds millions of students each year, faces criticism for everything from its steep price tag to the food it provides.

No one is staging a coup in the cafeteria yet, but as American students prepare to head back to school, there is a battle brewing over the National School Lunch Program which feeds millions of American children each year.

"It's a controversial program," admits Cindy Hobbs, executive director of child nutrition services of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. "But it's an important program. A lot of children depend on it to sustain them."

The program has been criticized for everything from its price tag in 2012, it cost $11.5 million, making it the second most expensive of all federal food programs behind food stamps  to the quality of food it provides.

In 2011, more than 31 million students nationwide qualified for free and reduced lunches through the federal program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Students from families whose incomes are at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,965 per year for a family of four) are eligible for free lunches; families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty level ($42,643 for a family of four) qualify for reduced price lunches and are charged no more than 40 cents per meal. School districts that participate in the program receive cash subsidies from the USDA. Current reimbursement rates are $2.86 for each free lunch and $2.46 for each reduced-price lunch.

Former U.S. Representative Todd Akin, R-Mo., has questioned whether the federal program makes sense. And earlier this year, GOP members in both the Vermont and North Dakota legislatures voted against subsidizing school lunches, according to The Huffington Post.

Related: New Jersey officials caught lying to get free school lunches

LUNCH REQUIREMENTS NOT EASY TO IMPLEMENT

But supporters of the program maintain that school lunches play an essential role in a quality education for many students.

"Students can't concentrate when they're hungry," said Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills C-1 Schools in Kansas City, Mo., where 85 percent of students participate in the program. "If we want our students to learn, we need to make sure they're well fed."

Still, she admits that implementation of the new guidelines proved challenging. When the program rolled out in 2012, Hickman Mills C-1 Schools had to offer two different sizes of hamburger patties in the cafeteria to make sure they weren't exceeding the calorie limits for students in different grades.

In 2010, the USDA's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act introduced new federal requirements for school lunches. In addition to requiring schools to serve meals that are lower in sodium and trans fats, and with more whole grains and fruits and vegetables, the program put calorie caps on meals. Lunches must be no more than 650 calories in elementary schools, 700 calories in middle schools and 850 calories in high schools.

"It adds a whole other level of complexity," said Schmidt, who also serves as the president of the School Nutrition Association, a national member organization for school nutrition professionals.

Increasing the percentage of whole grains in the lunch line has also proved challenging. To meet the guidelines in her North Carolina district, Cindy Hobbs started purchasing chicken nuggets and corn dogs with whole grain breading.

One New York school district recently dropped the program after students complained of hunger.

Related: Pack healthy and fun school lunches

'THERE CAN'T BE A STIGMA TO EATING A MEAL'

And even if schools are able to meet the nutritional requirements, that's not saying the students will enjoy the healthy food options. In fact, they might even protest changes to the lunch menu.

 "You can offer kids the healthiest foods in the world, but if students don't like them, they end up in the trash," said Schmidt.

U.S. Reps. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Steve King of Iowa, both Republicans, introduced the No Hungry Kids Act to repeal the new lunch standards. King's office did not respond to a request for information about the proposal.

In a statement, Huelskamp explained, "The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food. The USDA's new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste and unaccomplished goals."

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 54 percent of the 140,000 students qualify for free and reduced meals, but Hobbs worries that some aren't taking advantage because of the stigma associated with participation.

"We did a focus group and found that students believed only poor children ate breakfast at school," she said. 

To reduce the stigma, the district introduced a Universal Breakfast program that rolls out this fall. Under the program, all students are eligible for free breakfasts, but residents of higher-income neighborhoods expressed concern that their tax dollars were being used to fund a program that wasn't needed in their schools. School board member Richard McElrath told The Charlotte Observer that he was concerned students would eat twice, at school and at home.

Hobbs doesn't deny that students in affluent areas may not take advantage of the program at all while other students may eat two morning meals. Still, she supports the program.

"There can't be a stigma to eating a meal," she says.

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