Since 2006, every school district in the nation has been required to have a school wellness policy. Whether that means a few words on a paper that gets pulled out at inspection time, or real efforts to make healthy changes, however, is entirely up to each district.
Over the past several years, Marlene Shwartz, a professor at UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, has analyzed the wellness policies at each school across Connecticut.
“We thought the wealthier districts would have stronger policies, but we found the opposite,” Shwartz said. “Wealthier districts thought they didn’t have a problem. They kind of blew it off. We found the best policies in the cities, with New Haven being the best.”
The same is true when it comes to following nutritional guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture. In fact, for a variety of reasons, many wealthy towns choose to opt out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) — and its strict standards and requirements — altogether.
That means towns like Westport and Darien, among others, forfeit funding from the federal and state government in exchange for retaining full control over what they serve their students.
When you’re part of NSLP
In the New Haven Public Schools, students can get beef fajitas on a whole grain tortilla with roasted fresh broccoli, skim or 1% milk, and a fresh piece of fruit or fruit cup filled with melons, pineapple and grapes. If they don’t like that, there’s always a falafel wrap, yogurt plate, deli bar or a sun butter and jelly sandwich.
If those options don’t work, on Tuesdays there are hamburgers, Monday through Wednesday there’s a bagel option, and on Thursday and Friday there’s a salad bar.
And it’s all free, at least for the students.
That’s because New Haven Public Schools – just like Hartford, New London and 35 other groups of schools or districts where more than 40 percent of the students are below the poverty line – participates in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of NSLP. The program requires the school district to serve every student a free school lunch. In return, the school or district receives reimbursement for 160 percent of the students who do qualify for NSLP.
This means that in a district like New Haven where more than 62.5% of the students are eligible for free meals, the district gets reimbursed for 100 percent of the meals they serve.
In 2018-2019, the New Haven Public Schools received more than $13 million in federal and state subsidies for school meals, including breakfast, lunch and snack.
In parts of Fairfield County, the wealthiest county in the state, the picture is very different.
Darien, Easton, Weston and Westport have all opted out of the National School Lunch Program, forfeiting the chance to collect federal and state reimbursements while leaving behind the program’s stringent nutritional requirements, which mandate there be a fruit or vegetable on every child’s tray, require all breads and pastas to be whole-grain, and limit the number of calories per meal to 850 for high school students.
Fewer than 2% of the school population in these districts qualify for free or reduced lunches, so the loss in subsidies is negligible.
Greenwich – although neighbors with these four towns and one of the wealthiest communities in the state – has a more socio-economically diverse school population. As of 2018, nearly 20% of the K-12 student body qualified for free or reduced school meals.
Therefore, unlike surrounding towns, it would be nearly impossible for Greenwich to forfeit the federal and state subsidies it receives at the elementary and middle schools.
“That is an extremely large amount when you compare to the surrounding towns,” said John Hopkins, the Food Service Director for Greenwich Public Schools. “We have four severe need schools in this district where over 35 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced meals.”
While the NSLP combined with the CEP work very well in the poorer cities and towns, the NSLP sets up a bifurcated school lunch program that can become a financial drain on the entire school system and make both students and parents unhappy.
Serving two populations
Unlike in New Haven, the food service department for Greenwich schools cannot count on enough of its students buying the healthy lunch it provides each day — and the income that would come with that — and instead must rely on income it makes from selling a la carte items, like pre-made sandwiches, pizza, and other snacks that are not compliant with the NSLP. None of these items are available to children as part of their free or reduced lunch.
At the high school, which is not part of NSLP, the Food Service Department brings in $1.3 to $1.5 million in revenue from a la carte items, according to Hopkins. If the high school were to join NSLP, like the middle and elementary schools, or sign onto the state’s Smart Snack rule, it would lose all that income. This is something it can’t afford to do, as the department already operates at a deficit.
The Smart Snack Guidelines and Connecticut’s Healthy Certification took effect during the 2014-2015 school year. They require that all a la carte items, vending machine foods or any food sold within the school meet the nutritional standards set forth by the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010, and contain no more than 300 calories.
“To comply we would have had to reduce portion sizes and basically revamp the entire menu,” Hopkins said. “To say ‘Hey, the a la carte items are all going away because the government decided you don’t need those things anymore’ just wasn’t going to fly.”
Therefore, Greenwich High School opted out of NSLP and Connecticut’s Healthy Certification in order to broaden choices for students, and hopefully increase profits. That means the district still offers free and reduced meals to students who need them at the high school, but does not receive any federal reimbursement for those meals.
“It is the devil we know verses the devil we don’t know,” Hopkins said. “We know what the dollar figure was for us if we go off the program verses staying on the program and implementing school snacks.”
Parents, however, are not necessarily pleased by the decision.
“It is absolutely disgusting that politics and management issues are getting in the way of good nutrition for the kids,” said Abby Large, a parent of school aged children in Greenwich.
So, to put it bluntly, Greenwich can’t win. Students don’t think the healthy meals tastes good so they opt for less-healthy a la carte items, parents are unhappy about the nutritional content of their kids’ lunches, and the school board is constantly asking the department to reduce spending.
“Low rate of free/reduced lunch districts are in much more of a precarious financial situation,” Shwartz said. “You are almost catering to kids, whose taste may not be for healthy things. You are in a catch; you feel like you have to offer the students what they want, but now you can’t because it’s against the law.”
The food and who makes it
Too healthy/not healthy enough has been the constant push and pull of school food service for decades.
From the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared ketchup a vegetable, to the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010 that completely overhauled what students are fed, to today’s parents who demand schools serve fresh and local foods, the quality of school lunches have significantly improved since the turn of the century.
“There is no doubt that what is being served in schools now compared to ten years ago is completely different,” Shwartz said. “Nutrition quality of meals has improved significantly.”
Parents, however, point to artificial colors and flavors in the packaged foods and antibiotic use in meat products. They see more frozen foods than fresh foods, and many are demanding change.
“I took every single piece of food and looked up the label and highlighted all the chemicals, preservatives, artificial flavors, colors and mechanically separated meats,” Large said. “Our children can’t read those labels when they are sitting down and eating those crap foods. It seems that the business model lacks true focus on the true product — the core deliverable, wholesome healthy food.”
Whether or not the parents believe that school food service departments truly care about child nutrition, the fact of the matter is fresh, local foods without preservatives simply take more people and more time to prepare.
“I joined the industry in the late 80s and I always used to hear that in the 70s they made everything from scratch and they had 25 people in the kitchen,” Hopkins said. “Well, we have two.”
“I took every single piece of food and looked up the label and highlighted all the chemicals, preservatives, artificial flavors, colors and mechanically separated meats. It seems that the business model lacks true focus on the true product — the core deliverable, wholesome healthy food.”
And it’s not just the number of employees, but their training that matters too.
“The nature of school food service is that even if they are doing a really good job, if they don’t have any training themselves it is hard to implement any scratch cooking,” said Dan Giusti, the founder of Brigaid, a company that puts professional chefs into public schools to cook real, wholesome food from scratch.
Brigaid is currently operating in the New London public schools.
When Brigaid first started in the district during the 2016-2017 school year, the department was serving mostly processed foods. While Brigaid has changed that, the company’s employees have also realized that serving a child population is much more challenging than they expected.
“The food that we make, that we may think is better, may not be what students want,” Giusti said. “We tried really hard, and we as a bunch of chefs haven’t gotten kids to eat all the meals. We have really polarizing meals. If anyone went in and saw how much food is thrown away they would say this is nuts and this is crazy.”
Although Brigaid is all about bringing quality food to the lunch room, Giusti said he thinks the guidelines are as far as the regulations need to go.
“I joined the industry in the late ’80s and I always used to hear that in the ’70s they made everything from scratch and they had 25 people in the kitchen. Well, we have two.”
Food Service Director, Greenwich Public Schools
“People who are so obsessed with food beyond what the guidelines are at, I don’t know what they are thinking,” Giusti said. “There are all these organizations online right now bashing the roll-back of federal food guidelines, but you can argue that the roll-back has valid points. Kids don’t eat the foods.”
Over the past two and a half school years, Brigaid has transitioned everything except pasta and bread to be made from scratch in New London Public Schools. The veggies, fruits and proteins are almost all fresh.
“I’m a huge proponent of serving healthy food,” Giusti said. “But I’m a huge proponent of making food that kids will eat because if they don’t eat it, it’s not healthy.”
The cost and the alternatives
For districts like Greenwich that have relatively low participation rates – in addition to a unionized workforce that demands high wages – staying within a budget as a department can be nearly impossible.
For more than 10 years the department has run at a deficit.
“We were charged a few years ago to shrink the delta of money spent on food service, and we have accomplished that over the last three years,” Hopkins said.
Since the 2015-2016 school year, the amount of money the town gives the food services department has decreased from $330,000 to just under $200,000. This money is needed to supplement the amount the department earns in revenue from selling food.
“I don’t think we are ever going to break even, zero money from the town, so the town is considering outsourcing,” Hopkins said.
Parents like Large, who is a member of the School Lunch Fund Committee, think outsourcing may be the best option to get nutritious, affordable food into Greenwich schools.
“If you had a business as a CEO and you had a department that ran at a deficit for over a decade, what would you do?” Large said. “The Greenwich board of education is in the business of educating its students, not feeding them.”
As of the 2018-2019 school year, there were 54 districts in the state with food service operations run by outside companies such as Chartwells and Whitsons, according to the State Department of Education (CSDE). The four largest districts, however, are all self-operational.
“That hasn’t really changed in the last three years,” said John Frassinelli, of CSDE’s Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. “We’ve had just one district go from self-op(erating) to food service management company and two that went back to self-op.”
The argument for towns like Fairfield, which outsourced to Whitsons four years ago, is that a larger company will be able to purchase food at lower cost and therefore provide the students with more nutritious meals.
But according to Shwartz, it doesn’t typically work out that way.
“It’s not any better for schools who outsource,” Shwartz said. “You would think you’d have economies of scale, but you don’t end up with any kind of locally sourced or homemade meals. You just end up with a lot of products from very large companies.