State education leaders want to let school groups keep selling fried chicken sandwiches, ice cream, doughnuts and other unhealthy food at fundraisers despite new federal rules against it, though nutrition advocates say that position will not help reduce Georgia’s high childhood obesity rate.
At the state Board of Education meeting Thursday, members are expected to give schools exemptions from new federal requirements that limit sales during school hours of foods high in fat, calories and sodium.
Considered among of the most extensive exemptions in the U.S., the board’s proposal would allow schools to hold 30 food-related fundraisers per school year – lasting up to 3 days each — that do not meet the healthier federal nutrition standards. That equates to 90 days – or half the school year.
While state education leaders criticize the new regulations as an overreach by the federal government, food nutrition advocates argue they’re needed to stem the spiraling childhood obesity rate in Georgia, where one in three children is obese.
“Somewhere we have somebody in a corner office in Washington D.C. that has decided they know what is best for children all over the United States of America,” said Larry Winter, a state school board member critical of the new federal nutrition regulations. “There’s something desperately wrong about that.”
The regulations on fundraisers, effective this year, are part of the so-called “Smart Snack Law” — among the latest nutrition standards phased into schools as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
State education agencies are allowed to give schools exemptions, but 32 states have not, school nutrition advocates say. About a dozen states are allowing some fundraising exemptions, usually between 3 and 5 days a year.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and other nutrition advocacy groups protesting Georgia’s fundraising exemptions say schools can make just as much or more money through healthy food or non-food fundraisers, such as 5K races. But school officials cite evidence that healthier fare doesn’t always sell as well, even in school lunches.
“Specifically, to raise money for a school program … by serving foods that are high in fat and have no nutritional value, just doesn’t seem very responsible,” said Marsi Thrash, a director for the Metro Atlanta American Heart Association, another group against the state exemptions. She notes Georgia is ranked 10th among states for childhood obesity.
“We believe since children are … getting over 50 percent – and some of them are getting almost 100 percent – of their calories at school, that those should be good calories.”
Breakfast and lunches in school cafeterias are supported by federal funds and are federally regulated. Smart Snacks pertains to nutrition standards for foods and drinks sold through vending machines, school stores, and a la carte items sold in cafeterias as well as fundraisers.
Both Cobb County and Marietta school districts have passed resolutions opposing the federal fundraising rule and argue it’s keeping school athletic, band and other groups from raising much-needed funds for travel, uniforms and other items.
One of the most popular and lucrative food fundraising items in Cobb schools has been Chick-fil-A sandwiches, which have helped groups rake in millions of dollars over the years, according to parents.
Melanie Heineman, mother of a middle schooler and high school student in Cobb, said her kids have been involved in school fundraisers. This year, the Chick-fil-A fundraisers have stopped because of the new federal regulations, and parents are scrambling to find alternatives.
“It is big money,” she said. “I hope they can do something about the fundraising because there’s a lot of stuff that we as parents are asked to pay for out of our own pockets with public school, and the fundraising really helps with families who can’t afford to pay so much money for these different activities our kids do.”
In Paulding County, school superintendent Cliff Cole said the federal regulations are hampering food fundraising, as popular past items have included ice cream and Chick-fil-A sandwiches.
“I think school districts across the state should have some discretion on what type of fundraisers – especially food fundraisers – they’re presenting to their students … Not that I want to be a promo for Chick-fil-A, but who doesn’t like a Chick-fil-A biscuit?”
Paulding and other Georgia school districts have also been critical of the new federal regulations as they relate to breakfast and lunches served at schools. They say students don’t like the taste of the healthier fare and are throwing it away or not buying school meals at all.
Georgia Department of Education nutrition officials report a nearly 3 percent decrease between March 2013 and March 2014 in students paying for school lunches.
Costs more, tastes worse?
Nationwide, since the healthier regulations went into effect, close to 1 million fewer students are participating in the school lunch program, according to the School Nutrition Association, a group of 55,000 school nutrition professionals throughout the U.S.
A recent survey by the group found some schools say they’ve lost money since the new regulations, with the healthier foods costing more and students participating less.
Besides Smart Snacks, the biggest changes rolled out this year that affect breakfast and lunches require schools to significantly lower sodium and increase whole grain content.
Some metro Atlanta districts report it’s been difficult to find food vendors that sell the healthier items.
In DeKalb and Atlanta Public Schools, students have balked in the past at whole grain biscuits, calling them too dense and tasteless. So school nutritionists are trying new recipes that make the biscuits fluffier and closer to the color and texture of white flour biscuits.
Other districts have set up salad bars and introduced more hearty vegetarian choices, including veggie burgers and casseroles. Districts are phasing out deep fat fryers and turning to baking and steaming food.
At a recent lunch at Abbotts Hill Elementary in north Fulton County, students had the entrée choice of veggie lasagna or low-sodium meatball sub on whole grain bread; sides included broccoli and peaches.
Sophia Wilson, 6, attends the school and has helped district nutritionists taste-test items. Besides Fulton, a number of districts have sought students’ feedback to course-correct meals and recipes that aren’t faring well.
Sophia liked the meatball sub: “It tasted like there was a little bit of salt, but not too much.”
Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, said, “You can’t turn around students’ taste buds on a dime … Students’ taste can change. It’s about finding those products students like.”
How metro Atlanta schools have tried to make healthier food more palatable for students under new federal regulations:
Apples: Before, served whole. After, quartered for easier consumption.
French Fries and Chicken Tenders: Before, served fried. After, baked in specially-designed ovens to give food crispy, fried taste.
Biscuits: Before, baked with a whole grain recipe, leaving them dense and brown. After, baked with a new recipe making them fluffier and closer to color and texture of white flour biscuits.