By JOSH NEWTON
New federal meal guidelines continue to take a toll on the Child Nutrition Program at Tahlequah Public Schools, with fewer students eating lunch and more food being thrown away. But leaders say they’re making the best of things and working to ensure students eat healthy every day.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, the new standards were meant to align school meals “with the latest nutrition science and the real-world circumstances of America’s schools.”
TPS Child Nutrition Program Director Rhonnie Kerns said this week that the number of students eating meals at the middle and high school has dropped this year as the federal changes have taken effect. Kerns understands the goal of the federal mandates and agrees with other child-nutrition experts, who say the intent was noble.
“While the intention was good, [the guidelines have] not resolved the obesity problem. If anything, it is causing students to not get nutrition, skipping lunch and eating fast food and vending-machine items,” Kerns told school board members Monday evening.
Much of the change is based on the number of calories served to students of varying ages.
“If you’re going to say you can only have 800 calories, and you have an 80-pound girl compared to a 200-pound football player, and they both are getting that same number of calories, they can’t possibly both be meeting their needs,” said Kerns. “When you look at the body mass index, there’s no way you can blanketly say every child should have this. We have some who are allergic to gluten, some who are diabetics, so to have one program and say one thing is all they can have is short-sighted.”
Board Vice President Luke Foster and Kerns both agreed Monday evening that the notion of encouraging students to eat healthy is important. Board members and teachers said many children at TPS rely on the cafeteria as their best – or perhaps only – meal of the day.
“We’re a high-poverty area; we need more calories because we don’t want our kids to be hungry,” said Kerns. “They need to be healthy calories, but they need those calories nonetheless.”
Students are now required to take specific foods from the cafeteria.
“‘The vegetable of the day is squash, and you have to take that.’ So if they don’t want it, of course they are going to waste it,” said Kerns. “That’s part of the reason why [child nutrition] is ‘in the red’ for the first time in 16 years, as well, because we’re spending a lot more on the foods the kids will not eat.”
Kerns said the current financial outlook is a bit skewed because of December – “a short month with a long payroll,” as she described it – but the program is sitting at about a loss of $60,000, compared to last year, when it was $20,000 in the black.
But Kerns said a large portion of the decrease this year is also attributed to the opening of a sixth school site, with additional payroll and higher food costs.
TPS Director of Finance Diane Adamson said district officials knew they would face funding losses this year as a result of the federal changes.
“Child Nutrition is the one program that brings money in and doesn’t just spend it; it collects throughout the year,” said Adamson. “Anything ‘in the red’ for us is major, because we’re not used to being in the red with this program. From the eyes of a business professional, I would say we’re not desperate, but we’re kind of taking a step back and looking at it, and hopefully we won’t be in a major deficit at the end [of the school year].”
During Monday evening’s monthly board meeting, TPS leaders discussed the availability of vending machines at the middle and high schools; how they impact child nutrition; and whether they lead to fewer students taking school meals.
Kerns said foods that provide only minimal nutritional value are not allowed in the machines.
“Can we honestly say what’s in [the vending machines] is healthy? No; we can say there is some value, however,” said Kerns.
Terry Garrett, TPS executive director of technology and operations, said students would bring their own snacks that might provide no nutritional value, if vending machines weren’t available to them.