Nathan Greenberg believes he runs a school district, but federal bureaucrats look at his Londonderry, N.H., operation and see …. a food processing plant?
That’s the strange dilemma the 5,000-student district finds itself in after deciding at the end of the last school year to pull the high school out of the unpopular National School Lunch Program. While the district’s elementary and middle schools remain in the program, which sets portion and nutrition guidelines for students, provides low cost staples and subsidizes meals of low-income pupils, it proved immensely unpopular at the high school.
“We saw the [federally-mandated] food going right into the garbage,” said Greenberg. “We had some of the healthiest trash cans in the state of New Hampshire.”
Before the current school year began in the town of 24,000 neighboring Manchester, the district decided to pull the older students out of the program. Doing so gave officials flexibility in what meals they offered and how they were prepared. The high school now has a new snack room, a coffee bar and a frozen-yogurt machine, and a salad bar is set to open next month. Participation in the school lunch program rose from 29 percent to 33 percent, according to officials.
Greenberg’s goal was not to provide a less healthy menu, but to provide more choices and ensure the food was actually consumed.
“We knew full well that in doing so, we would have to pick up the tab for the [high school] kids who got free and reduced-price lunches,” Greenberg said. “We were okay with that.
“We were able to offer nutritious lunches with greater variety,” he continued. “We have seen greater participation and enthusiasm, as well as significantly less waste.”
But the problem arose when U.S. Department of Agriculture officials realized that nearly all of the district’s food is taken in, stored and prepared at the facility at the high school. That means food destined for the one middle and four elementary schools, which is subsidized by taxpayers, could be co-mingled with food that is not. It also means the high school – but not the other schools in the district – would forgo foods the USDA provides at low prices, including cheese, diced chicken and peaches.
To ensure that all food was properly accounted for, the district could either build a separate facility for food preparation at the other schools or adopt the type of strict accounting system used at industrial food processing facilities, where every item is monitored coming in and going out. It would also have to submit to rigorous and regular federal inspections, according to Greenberg.
“Say we are making meat loaf,” Greenberg said. “Someone drops a pound of ground beef on the floor. Normally, we would simply throw that away. But now, we would have to log it, and document whether it came out of the high school’s supplies or the elementary school’s.
“We would have to do that with everything, coming in and going out,” he added. “They are treating us like we are Tyson Chicken.”
Greenberg said the district provided what he considered a reasonable bookkeeping plan that seemed to pass muster with the USDA regional office in Boston, but recently received a letter from the federal agency that included a questionnaire and the reference to the district kitchen as a “processing facility.”
USDA spokeswoman Brooke Hardison said the Londonderry situation was unique because participating and non-participating schools share the same storage and preparation facilities.
“In this unique situation, the state distributing agency, which is responsible for oversight and monitoring of the use and storage of USDA foods it receives, reached out to USDA for guidance as the state works to ensure that these taxpayer-funded resources are used properly within the school district’s school lunch program,” she said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., blasted the government agency for imposing “burdensome” costs on the local school district, and on Thursday fired off a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging the agency to grant Londonderry a waiver from the regulations.
“Local school districts in New Hampshire that are working to both ensure proper nutrition for their students and responsibly manage taxpayer dollars should not be burdened by onerous federal requirements from Washington,” Ayotte said in a statement.
Rep. Frank Guinta, a Republican and one of the state’s two members of Congress, said if the lunch program satisfies students, parents and local taxpayers, the federal government should butt out.
“Unfortunately for New Hampshire, the USDA is providing a great example for the rest of the country of what’s wrong in Washington,” Guinta said. “Federal bureaucrats write rules that don’t work and punish us when we produce alternatives. In this case, it’s clear they care less about nutrition than they do about control.”
A USDA official said it is up to state officials to ensure compliance with the lunch program, but that state officials had reached out to the USDA regional office for guidance because of the unusual situation. But the official said it is not up to the USDA to grant a waiver and that state and federal regulators plan to meet later this month to work out a monitoring and compliance plan for Londonderry.
Meanwhile, even without the new red tape the district has already paid a price by forgoing the subsidies for low income high school kids’ meals. By some estimates, that alone has more than doubled the cost of each meal. Greenberg said the district never intended to wade into the politics of the school lunch program, which has been championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, yet proven extremely unpopular with older students. But he is now left wondering if the bureaucratic pushback is agenda-driven.
“I don’t know if that‘s the intent, but you could perceive it that way,” he said. “Our issue is quality lunches, healthy lunches and choice vs. healthy trash cans.”