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home : top news : top news February 26, 2015

6/13/2014 9:20:00 AM
Feds Complicate School Lunch
James Jardine
Staff Writer

As new federal requirements for school lunches become law, local schools have been impacted by higher costs, lower student participation and more food waste, according to area educators.

Tom Petit, the financial officer for the Caledonia North Supervisory Union, said Wednesday that the Abbey Food Group, based in Enosburg Falls, cancelled its food service contract with the Lyndon Town School. The Abbey Group has the hot lunch contract with Burke, Newark and Lyndon. The contract with LTS is for $228,024 and has been renewed several years in a row, but this year, Abbey Group ended the relationship. Petit explained that Abbey came in very low on price to start with in Lyndon and then incurred rising costs complying with new federal lunch guidelines. Abbey cancelled its contract with Lyndon because after making money the first two years, Abbey lost money the third year and concluded it could not make a profit under the existing contract.

Two other Caledonia North Supervisory Union schools, Millers Run, the K-8 for Sheffield and Wheelock, and the Newark elementary school operate their own food service with their own employees.

LTS will put the food service contract out to bid, Petit said, and Abbey is welcome to compete for the new contract. Abbey continues its service at Newark and Burke. Burke's contract is for $95,991. Newark's contract is for $55,307.

Nicole Fournier, director of Account Development for the Abbey Food Group, said, "Abbey has every intention and hope we'll be back with Lyndon."

The costs associated with federal compliance is a problem throughout the U.S.

In an article dated June 4 titled "Behind the School Lunch Fight" in the online news site Politico, Helena Evich writes, "There is no doubt that there are schools across the country having trouble with the new regulations, which require changing menus and scaling back the sale of unhealthy products in a la carte lines. Kids are in some cases rejecting changes and school districts are facing significantly higher food costs that aren't being covered by the six cents per meal increase the law provided."


An organization, the Food Research and Action Center, published a summary of the new USDA standards in January, 2012. Among the changes brought by the new regulations, fruit and vegetable requirements have been at least doubled. The new rule also emphasizes variety. Students must choose more selections and are restricted from declining as many choices as they wish, which can mean a student will accept a food item to comply with the rules and in order to obtain the other items the student wants, then throw the mandatory item in the trash and eat the rest. For example, a student must select at least a half cup of the offered fruit or vegetable. The Food research and Action Center writes, "The rule will increase both food and labor costs." Overall, the rule requires schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grain-rich foods and offer only fat-free or low-fat fluid milk; limit saturated fat and sodium; minimize trans fat and limit the calories that can be offered in a meal, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Fournier said Abbey encountered a loss of 50 students at Lyndon and a "changed dynamic." Abby hired a new head of its meal programs with a culinary background and added additional personnel with academic backgrounds in culinary studies who command higher salaries. With higher costs and fewer students, the Abby Group found it "challenging" to fulfill the contract.

"We did a really good job [overcoming student objections]," said Fournier. "Participation is 70 percent at lunch and 27 percent at breakfast."

During the current year, Abbey has had to revamp its menu and its ordering and research ingredients and recipes. Fournier said Abbey has benefited tremendously from a partnership with King Arthur Flour, whose product meets federal guidelines is used in Abby's baked goods.

Fournier added that the Abby Group now uses 10 percent or more local food products.

At Blue Mountain Union School District in Wells River, Superintendent Richard Pike said as a result of the new rules, "we've certainly seen the impact on participation in our district." The district's food service committee met to consider raising its lunch prices to offset a decline in participation but decided against it. Pike said, "[The mandatory offerings] are not quite as inviting to some people ... It's a challenge when kids are accustomed to foods that are not quite as healthy."

Costs are higher because preparation times are longer. Federal rules have already been modified in some cases because of pushback from the schools.

"The overarching conclusion is that, like many federal programs, it is well-intentioned with a lot of unintended consequences," said Fournier.

At Lyndon Institute, the school took a different approach and announced a new policy for the coming year. All students will be eligible for free lunch, with no means testing. Assistant Head for External Affairs Mel Reis said Lyndon no longer has to ask students if they qualify for reduced cost meals and parents no longer have to fill out federal forms. According to a statement from Lyndon Institute dated Jan. 15, "Only about half of our students participate in lunch programs, even with subsidies available. Some students either don't have the money or are saving it for other needs, some families do not want to participate in government programs, and many students find the new federal restrictions simple unpalatable. Too few students were eating wholesome lunches and too much food required by federal guidelines was wasted."

For LI, compliance was even more difficult because of the large number of boarding students from foreign countries with different dietary preferences and customs.

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