Children Aren’t Getting Balanced Meals, and It Ain’t Because the Grits Are Savory

While some school-age children might be throwing away the grits with “black flakes,” they are likely far outnumbered by the many children in our school systems who can’t afford their school breakfast in the first place.

Schools’ trouble with managing unpaid meal charges on student meal accounts for school breakfast and lunch programs caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016 to require schools to develop a clear unpaid meal charge policy by July 1, 2017. Shutterstock

President Trump’s administration has yet to pass anything that will improve the lives and livelihoods of students, but at least it will make sure their food preferences are met!

On May 1, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation to roll back part of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, by relaxing nutritional standards on school meals. The administration claims that the federal guidelines cost states and school districts additional money, while students create more food waste, because they do not like taste and/or the appearance of healthier food options.

But this focus on food choice over access is deeply concerning, especially as research suggests the students complaining the most about healthier food options are primarily those who are able to afford their meals. It seems the Trump administration has become so focused on dismantling Obama-era programs, it’s lost sight of addressing actual problems, like food scarcity among the most vulnerable students, which should trouble us all.

Under the changes to federal nutrition standards, states will be able to determine public school guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk. These changes mean that schools won’t have to cut as much salt from meals, can serve fewer whole grains, and will be allowed to serve 1 percent milk rather than only nonfat milk.

Perdue said in announcing the changes, “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program.” Perdue went on to say,

A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.

To be fair, social media has confirmed that people, Southerners included, simply can’t eat everybody’s grits anyway. However, by targeting the decline of student participation in school breakfast and lunch programs on grits preferences, among other reasons, the administration is missing the point about what’s really happening with students, food access, and malnutrition.

Perdue and the Trump administration seem to be referencing findings from a January 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability (GAO), titled School Lunch: Implementing Nutrition Changes was Challenging and Clarification of Oversight Requirements is Needed.” The report is based on data collected during the 2012-2013 school year, just two years after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that required U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update its standards for lunches. In the report, the GAO did find that student participation declined by 1.2 million students, or 3.7 percent, from school year 2010-2011 through school year 2012-2013, but mostly this decline was due to students who paid full price for their lunch.

When asked to explain the findings in the report, Kathryn Larin, director of the Education, Workforce and Income Security Team at the GAO, told Rewire:

What we found nationwide is that student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by over a million, but if you break that [million] down into three categories: students who receive free lunch, students who pay reduced-price lunch, and those who pay the full price, we found for free and reduced lunch, there wasn’t much of a decline. Participation didn’t go down. The reduction was for students who pay full price. Those who pay full price, saw [the] greatest decline. And what we know is that those are the students with the most choices because they come from households with [greater] income.

The GAO report also found that food preference was only one factor for why students, who paid full price for their lunch, decreased their participation in the program. The nutrition guidelines were new to students and dramatically changed their meals in a short window of time. Larin described this time as a “transitional period,” where students were adjusting to the changes. She continued:

When we talked to school districts and administration, “Why do you think participation is going down [for the students who pay full price]?” there were a few factors. There was a provision in the law called Paid Lunch Equity that required schools that were not really covering their costs to gradually increase the prices of their full price of their means. And we did hear from some of the school districts that we talked to that that might have also played a role. When you have a combination of the changes in the taste of the food [due to nutrition requirements], changes in the size of the lunch [smaller because of the new calorie limits], and the price going up—even though it wasn’t a significant price increase—all three of those factors could have affected the sales of paid lunches.

Some areas of the program were expected to get less challenging in the future, and possibly even the meals’ palatability to students could have improved. But the potential for growth has just been cut short based on the misrepresentation of data collected during the new guidelines’ adjustment time, or growing pain years.

The report also found that changes in lunch program participation were likely influenced by factors that directly affected students’ eligibility for free and reduced-price school meals. Though the decline of lunch program participation was driven primarily by students who pay full price for meals, the number of students who receive free school meals has increased. In fact, according to the USDA data in the report, the number of students approved for free meals nationally has increased at a greater rate since school year 2007-2008, the start of the Great Recession, while the number of students required to pay full price for their lunches has decreased.

No matter whether the grits have black flakes, this data suggests that many students and families are dealing with the inability to pay for school lunch, which in my mind is a bigger and more pressing concern than whether or not the kids who can afford lunch don’t like the food on their lunch tray.

As Patricia Montague explained in a 2014 Education Week article, 53 percent of school districts have experienced an increase in unpaid meal charges, according to a 2012 School Nutrition Association survey. Wrote Montague, “Of those facing the increase, 56 percent anticipated that the accumulated debt from those charges would be greater at the end of the school year compared with that of the previous school year. Thirty-three percent anticipated a significant increase in debt.” In the 2011-2012 school year, 1,043 of New York City’s 1,600 schools owed a collective $2.5 million to the education department for meals served in the first three months of the school year.

Schools’ trouble with managing unpaid meal charges on student meal accounts for school breakfast and lunch programs caused the USDA in 2016 to require schools to develop a clear unpaid meal charge policy by July 1, 2017.

In 2016, USDA released a report, titled Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools. Among other things, the 70-page report suggests schools “provide alternate meals” that will lower cost and “prevent the embarrassment of children with unpaid meal charges.” But in many places, these alternate meals offer little dignity.

Further, this inattention to food insecurity in schools has, in effect, left the job of managing hunger (and, indirectly, school budgets) to cafeteria workers who make food and ring up the costs of meals. There have been at least three workers to make national headlines in the last two years after they were fired for giving hungry students free lunches. In some ways, their terminations might only serve to continue the cycle of food insecurity if the cafeteria workers were then unable to feed any children they might have at home.

In 30 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent or more of the child population lived in food-insecure households in 2014, according to the latest Feeding America Network child hunger fact sheet. In Mississippi, 26 percent of children lived in households without consistent access to food.

School lunch and breakfast programs also do not accommodate for the long-term effects of poverty on child development. Research shows child hunger can cause depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal, which are all barriers to learning and have lifelong impacts. These conditions might even become pre-existing conditions under the GOP’s health-care policy, adding another layer of future challenges for this generation.

So what can Trump’s administration do to help students? It can start by focusing on which students are not eating more often than others and begin to address those root problems, instead of simply implementing changes that could leave the most vulnerable students without nutritional food they might not otherwise be able to access. Federal, state, and local governments are well positioned to assist those families falling in this gap, by centering their needs in budgeting and other administrative decisions.

In short, while some school-age children might be throwing away the grits with “black flakes,” they are likely far outnumbered by the many children in our school systems who can’t afford breakfast in the first place. Our children and communities deserve policies that observe them as more than consumers, policies that see them as people who deserve access to healthy foods, nutrition, and long-term wellness solutions.