High school district nutritionist asks Congress to serve up flexibility on lunch program


School lunch restrictions have gotten tighter across the country and the San Dieguito Union High School District has complied to ensure its food is nutritious as well as appetizing to middle school and high school students.

However, complying with those standards has resulted in fewer students eating those healthy school lunches and rising costs are making a mess of the meal program budget, officials say.

It is frustrating to Siri Perlman, district nutrition specialist, that the district can sell a pack of sour worms candy, but they can’t sell Sabra-brand hummus packs because they are too high in fat for the regulations. She scratches her head that Flamin’ Crunchy Hot Cheetos are deemed OK as a snack, but not a wheel of soft Babybel cheese.

The federal guidelines are well-intentioned, she said, but what school districts need is a little more flexibility.

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 this fall, Perlman was invited by the School Nutrition Association to discuss the impact of new nutrition standards on school meal programs in two congressional staff briefings June 11 in Washington, D.C.

Perlman was one of six speakers representing lunch programs throughout the country. Nutrition specialists from Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky and New York joined her before Congress.

The group participated in two briefings, one with the Senate Agriculture Committee staff and select staff from the Senate and House Appropriations Committee. A second meeting was with the House Education and Workforce Committee staff.

“It was an amazing opportunity, and I feel so privileged to work with people from our field and advocate for change in areas we feel are inconsistent with the end goal to provide healthy, nutritious meals to students,” Perlman said. “We support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but there needs to be more flexibility to in order to be successful both financially and participation-wise.”

Historically, San Dieguito’s reimbursable meal program has been subsidized through its a la carte food sales. With the new regulations that took effect in July 2014, a la carte revenue dropped significantly and the district anticipates a loss of $175,000 this school year.

Under the federal government meal program, the district is reimbursed 34 cents per full meal sold. For the meal to be reimbursable, students must take at least three of the five components offered, and one component must be a fruit or vegetable.

Schools offer four menu items daily plus alternatives of a hummus pack, yogurt parfait or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

They are no longer allowed to sell the entrees from the combo meals a la carte unless they are under 400 calories and sold the day they appear on the reimbursable meal program menu, or the day after. If they’re not on the menu in that time frame, the items must be less than 350 calories with less than 35 percent calories from fat, and less than 35 percent sugar, and must meet several other restrictions.

Snack food items must be less than 200 calories and meet many of the same restrictions.

To meet those requirements, portion sizes have had to decrease, resulting in smaller bagels (and cream cheese or jelly are no longer allowed to be sold with them), smaller versions of the popular paninis, and four sushi rolls rather than six (because of sodium content).

Perlman said it’s hard to overcome the student customers’ perception that they are paying the same price for less.

The schools are also no longer allowed to sell Gatorade, which Perlman said they weren’t too sad to see go, although that has caused a major hit in their revenue.

“The new Smart Snacks regulations have not had the intended effect in our district,” Perlman says. “Many students are upset that healthy reimbursable meal entrees can no longer be sold a la carte, and that some popular options like hummus and pretzels are off the menu. With a la carte choices so limited, many students go off campus for fast food, soda and sugary snacks.

“Allowing reimbursable entrees to be sold a la carte every day would provide students with a larger variety of nutritious choices and help to restore our financial solvency. Food is only nutritious if they eat it.”

Perlman, a registered dietitian, has been working in wellness for 10 years. Before joining the district two years ago, she served as the coordinator of nutrition education and PE programs in the Lawndale Elementary School District. At Lawndale, she was the site coordinator for the Network for Healthy California for five years and the Physical Education Program grant for two years.

Perlman was recently named president of Chapter 34 of the California School Nutrition Association, which has been dormant for the past 10 years.

Her invitation to visit Congress was unexpected. Rick Mariam, the district’s director of nutrition services, had been interviewed for an article in the Los Angeles Times. But his thoughts were not included in the resulting article, and Perlman took issue with the fact that their concerns were lumped into being portrayed as the “lunch lady lobby.”

“To be characterized as the ‘lunch lady lobby’ and not nutrition advocates was very frustrating,” Perlman said.

She wrote a letter to the editor, and a firm working with the School Nutrition Association reached out to her about joining SNA members in expressing her concerns to Congress.

As Perlman said, SDUHSD’s nutrition program runs like a small business — it has to make money to pay for its operating costs and avoid dipping into reserves or the district’s general fund.

Food costs have increased because of the ingredient requirements. As a dietitian, Perlman loves that they are serving whole-wheat lavash bread, brown rice sushi and fresh fruit, but those items do cost more.

Unfortunately, the price increases have been passed on to the consumer. Just last month, the board approved increasing school lunch prices from $3.75 to $4.25, the first price increase in seven years.

“The feedback we hear from students are that the meals are too expensive,” Perlman said. “High schoolers can go off-campus at lunch, so at schools like San Dieguito, you’ll see a mass exodus at lunch. Imagine us trying to provide a Greek salad or a whole grain burrito with barbacoa, and students are going off getting a Frappuccino.”

At San Dieguito, students flock to the convenience store down the road on Santa Fe Drive, where they have had to institute rules of no more than 10 students in the store at a time because of the lunchtime rush. Across from Canyon Crest Academy, students can now walk to the growing Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch, where lines at Starbucks now stretch out the door onto the sidewalk.

“We’re getting healthier, but we’re losing our students to those places,” Perlman said.

She said the intent of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is admirable — but the unintended consequence is that it renders their program financially unsustainable.

“If we lose our customer base and prices go up, how can you sustain that?” Perlman asked. “And how would the community feel if we have to dip into the general fund?”

For their part, Perlman is proud of how innovative the district has been to come up with ways to meet the regulations and keep the food exciting for students.

The regulations mandate that all grains are 100 percent whole grain, so the district has worked hard with its bakery to develop a whole grain-rich sourdough bread that students like. It also created a macaroni and cheese dish with whole grain noodles and low-sodium and low-fat cheese sauce.

The chicken Caesar wrap on whole-wheat lavash is a top seller, and they serve unique sides like roasted garbanzo beans.

The district also worked with students as they developed a pupusa, an El Salvadoran dish. Students helped rename it the more teen-palatable “stuffed bean and cheese quesadilla,” and they advertise it on campus with posters touting the house-made crudito slaw that tops it.

All food is prepared at the central kitchen at Canyon Crest, then trucked to the sites.

Perlman said her kitchen staff takes pride in their work and are always interested to see how the students like what they make. They carefully layer the granola in the yogurt parfaits, hand-roll the burritos and stack the turkey sandwiches just so.

A lot of labor goes into all these new items — but unless they get student buy-in, they’re a loss and they have to be pulled from the menu.

Besides lunch service lines, each high school has its own school eatery: At La Costa, it’s The Calf-A, San Dieguito has the Mosaic Café, Torrey Pines has the Corner Café and Canyon Crest has The Nest. The district has tried to keep the café environments fun and inviting, and students take ownership by running the cafes through Regional Occupational Program business classes.

“With limited staff and funding, we’re doing the best we can to get buy-in for all of the healthy choices,” Perlman said.

The tweaks Perlman advocated in Washington were to allow a la carte items to be sold at any time, for the initial requirement of 50 percent whole grains (instead of 100 percent) to be restored, and to increase the per meal reimbursement by 35 cents because the full meal reimbursements are not covering their costs. She said if they can get help in those areas, it would go a long way toward recovering lost participation and allow them to remain fiscally solvent.

“As someone who only now is getting involved with our national organization, I was so impressed with the professionalism but down-to-earth nature of the SNA staff, and meeting and working with all the representatives from other states,” Perlman said. “I felt really good about our field and all the positive work that we’re doing. It inspired me and reinforced the work I’m doing at San Dieguito.”