Blog: The Educated Reporter

Food Fight: Federal School Lunch Guidelines Unsavory in Arizona

For some Arizona lawmakers, the federal government seems poised to become that proverbial one cook too many for their schools’ kitchens.

The conflict stems from upcoming changes to the federal nutritional guidelines for school meals, the first update in 15 years. Arizona State Senator Rich Crandall (R-Mesa) says he’s worried that the new rules will be too onerous for schools to follow. He’s proposed state legislation that would allow district’s top opt out of the federal meals program and decide independently what to put on the menu.

“We are giving local control back and eliminating mandates at the same time,” Crandall wrote in a note to federal lawmakers, as reported by the East Valley Tribune. “No one will be going off of the National School Lunch Program unless the new federal rules cause them to lose their shirt financially and they opt for a different way to feed children.”

The state teachers’ union isn’t so sure that the transition won’t leave kids hungry. As of last year Arizona had nearly 530,000 students receiving free meals, and close to 70,000 on the reduced-price meal plan.

“Before there was a requirement to provide school lunch there were some that provided it and some that didn’t. It created some inequities that were damaging to schools,” Doug Kilgore, a spokesman for the Arizona Education Association told the East Valley Tribune. “We’re not sure why this is needed. We’ve not been convinced as to why this is needed.”

First Lady Michelle Obama has made ending childhood obesity within a generation her policy priority. What students eat at school and what they learn about a sensible diet play a significant role in that goal. (Click here for more on her role, and the specifics of the new meal nutritional guidelines.)

On the upside for schools’ coffers, the feds are increasing funding for meals. On the downside, school districts that fail to comply with the new regulations risk losing federal funding.

The new nutrition guidelines for school meals include requirements that all milk be low-fat or nonfat For the first time, there will be a limit on total calorie counts. The rules could have become even more stringent were it not for successful lobbying by the nation’s potato growers, who fought a proposed limit on how many days spuds can be served. The feds also held off, pending further study, on setting limits on how much sodium a school meal could contain.

None of these changes matter, of course, unless you can convince the students to eat the food. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, has struggled mightily with this conundrum. When the corn dogs and French fries were replaced with healthier fare, students at one high school filled up on the high-fat chips and sugary sodas they brought to school, according to this story from the Los Angeles Times.

There is no shortage of critics arguing that the government shouldn’t tell children what to eat. But the sad reality is that healthy eating habits are not something many students can be counted on to learn at home. The childhood obesity epidemic – and yes, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it an epidemic – will have long-term costs and consequences for the nation. Knowing that cafeteria meals are at least being brought in line with common-sense nutritional guidelines should make that whole-grain turkey burger easier to swallow.


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