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Federal school lunch policy -- healthy choice or burdensome regulation?

Recent changes to make the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program more nutritious have been controversial. In fact, several central New York schools have opted out. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take care,” hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition and Policy Consultants in Washington, D.C. about how the program works.

Lorraine Rapp: Bring us up to date, if you would, on what changes were made and what was the reason behind it?

Tracy Fox: The updates to the school meal patterns did take place in the 2012-2013 school year. And those changes, basically, brought the school meal standards up to date with current dietary recommendations. So they called for increases in the number of fruits and vegetables to be served, about a half a cup more a day, as well as focusing on whole grain items -- like whole grain and brown rices, whole grain bread and whole grain pasta – as well as limiting the higher fat milk products. So, only non-fat and low-fat milk can be served. Those are probably the most significant changes, as well as phasing in reductions in sodium. And the sodium reductions actually will be phased over the next close to 10 years. I think 2023 is the final benchmark for sodium. So there is a phase-in for all the standards, and sodium is the longest.

Linda Lowen: Concurrent with this has been a lot of discussion about Michelle Obama’s program to help children and reduce childhood obesity. Which came first, is it the chicken or the egg? Can you talk about that?

Tracy Fox: Oh, easily the school meal program has been around since the 1940s and it has been updated countless times since then. The most significant ones before these changes that took place in 2012-2013 were the early ‘90s. So, this is par for the course.

Lorraine Rapp: Do all schools have to abide by these new guidelines?

Tracy Fox: The 100,000 public schools in the country that choose to operate the National School Lunch Program do need to abide it. And the majority of schools across the country – over 95 percent of public schools – do choose to operate the National School Lunch Program. So they do need to abide if they want to receive the reimbursement from the Department of Agriculture.

Lorraine Rapp: We just want to understand why some schools might opt out of being part of the program, and therefore, allowing themselves to really serve whatever they want with no one looking over their shoulder in terms of the nutritional value.

Tracy Fox: So we have seen some schools drop out because of the school meal standards. What we generally see are those schools have a very, very low free and reduced price category. So they serve a very small percentage of low income children and families and most of the kids are in the category of being able to pay for their meals. So for some schools, they chose not to implement the updated standards. They might have felt that it was a little too arduous. It is a fair amount of record keeping. You do have to have a certain variety and array of products on the menu all the time. And for some schools who really weren’t serving a lot of meals that were reimbursed, they might feel that it’s to their financial advantage not to opt in to the program. I will say that of all of the schools that have dropped out of the program, less than 0.15 percent are related to the changes to the school meal program.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.