Local parochial school says “no, thank you” to national school lunch program
“We were dealing with increased amounts of paperwork to the point that it was ridiculous…” Principal Shirley Heise
By Eileen Persike
President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, making the year-to-year nutrition program permanent. Since then, the federally assisted meal program has undergone changes, additions and updates; most recent is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Increased nutrition and accountability requirements which were phased in over the past few years have led one Rhinelander school administrator to say enough is enough.
Nativity Catholic School has opted out of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
“We were dealing with increased amounts of paperwork to the point that it was ridiculous the amount of time spent – there was more time spent doing paperwork than preparing meals,” said Nativity Principal Shirley Heise. “While I respect what the federal government wanted and needed for accountability, our program and people have always been accountable to nutrition.”
There is no doubt that under the NSLP the Nativity students were getting quality food, according to Heise, “but I can’t say they were getting quality meals because of what they were required to have,” she added.
The increased amounts of paperwork are especially taxing on small schools, like Nativity which has a kitchen staff of four part time cooks. Simply planning menus became a challenge. Calorie and nutrition content of everything served had to be calculated and recorded, keeping in mind the weekly limits of things such as sodium and carbohydrates and all recipes used were government-approved.
“We still require they take three or four things and make sure every meal is healthy,” Heise said. “But the food waste is a lot less than it was before.”
A large part of the national lunch program that Nativity is giving up is reimbursement from the government, and reduced price commodities used to make the lunches. The school has not increased the cost of hot lunch at this time, and pays the entire cost for the students who qualify for free lunch.
“This year we budgeted the same amount as last year,” Heise explained. “At the end of the year we’ll review. Didn’t increase the cost of hot lunch at this time, but at the end of the semester I will look to see– should we have increased it, do we need to for next semester, even if it’s a nickel a person, or a quarter a person.”
Still, she said, they continue to serve quality food. Head cook Rita Dobbins and Mike Mangerson shop at Aldi and get bananas every day from Kwik Trip. Heise said they buy from Cisco and Indianhead and have learned to be very, very creative. The school has also been fortunate to receive donated apples, cranberries, tomatoes and hundreds of pounds of potatoes, among other things.
“If people give us squash, we’ll take it and try to figure out what to do with it, so it’s kind of fun, it’s a challenge,” said Dobbins. “But what’s nice is I don’t have to look up a recipe that’s government approved; it’s fun to be able to use a recipe brought in by a parent and have the freedom to try it.”
Dobbins says they still will use wheat flour when possible and substitute applesauce, which they can make themselves, for the oil in many recipes,keep records and logs and they follow strict health and sanitation regulations. Because they can now purchase and prepare raw meat, kitchen staff has been working with the Oneida County Health Department to learn the process for handing raw chicken and beef, and how to follow the protocol for preventing contamination. It’s a new learning curve, but one Nativity administrators have decided is worth it.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make [dropping out of the school lunch program] because we had nothing to go by, we had no idea what it was going to cost,” principal Heise said. “Even though it cost money for the federal program and even though the paperwork part of it was killing us, are we really ready to go away from this? Are we really ready to say no to commodities and no to support? In the end we decided we had to. In the end we decided we just had to walk away from it.”