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District 214 exits National School Lunch Program

A collection of Township High School District 214 officials and other community leaders gather in Buffalo Grove High School's "Bison Grill" for a summit meeting on May 12, eating meals prepared by BGHS's advanced cooking classes. On May 8, the Dist. 214 School Board voted to leave the National School Lunch Program, freeing itself to offer a much wider variety of breakfasts and lunches in their cafeterias Ñ but forgoing nearly $1 million in subsidies as well. | Ronnie Wachter/Sun-Times Media

A collection of Township High School District 214 officials and other community leaders gather in Buffalo Grove High School's "Bison Grill" for a summit meeting on May 12, eating meals prepared by BGHS's advanced cooking classes. On May 8, the Dist. 214 School Board voted to leave the National School Lunch Program, freeing itself to offer a much wider variety of breakfasts and lunches in their cafeterias Ñ but forgoing nearly $1 million in subsidies as well. | Ronnie Wachter/Sun-Times Media

When the feds decided they wanted to regulate school bake sales, that was the last straw for District 214.

The Township High School District 214 Board voted on May 8 to exit the National School Lunch Program, leaving about $800,000 in federal subsidies on the table, but freeing themselves from new nutrition guidelines that board members said would have cost them even more. The six-school district, which includes Buffalo Grove High School, is now seeking ways to fund free and reduced-price lunches independently so they can free themselves of the growing list of nutrition restrictions.

“We’re noticing a significant drop in student participation in the cafeteria,” said Bill Dussling, president of the Dist. 215 School Board. “They just were not into what the US Department of Agriculture was mandating for the menu.”

And at BGHS in particular, where nearly a dozen fast-food restaurants are across either Buffalo Grove and Dundee roads, bad food in the lunch room makes those McNuggets sound even better.

“They’re voting with their feet, and I can’t blame them,” Dussling said.

Beginning July 1, schools that take part in the federal government’s subsidy program that makes cafeteria breakfasts and lunches either free or affordable for low-income families, will need to abide by the Smart Snacks in Schools initiative. The incoming regulations’ intent is to reduce students’ consumption of sugar, sodium and fat:

• Participants will need to increase their offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains

• Portion sizes and total calories will be controlled

• As a result, skim milk will be restricted to 12 fluid ounces

• Bake sales that feature regular cookies, brownies or pies will be forbidden. A cookie made out of whole grain with celery in it might work.

Dist. 214 continues to take part in the government’s separate milk subsidy, but Dussling said Smart Snacks eliminates too many ethnic foods, too many sources of calcium and protein for young athletes and, too much stuff that tastes good. With Popeye’s Chicken, Spunky Dunkers, Oberweis, Pizza Hut and Panera Bread all across the streets — and McDonald’s going through a rebuilding project this summer to make it easier for BGHS students to walk to the Golden Arches — Dussling said staying with the federal program would have resulted in an even larger loss of money than what they can do on their own.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What are they going to eat?’” he said.

In recent years, the entire district has averaged $800,000 in subsidies for free and reduced-price meals, he said; by leaving the feds, access to that money is gone. Dussling promised that the board will still offer free and reduced-price meals this fall, and will not redefine who qualifies — meaning the only change low-income families should see is in what options they have.

Those options, Dussling promised, will broaden. Now free from Washington’s regulations, BGHS and its sister cafeterias will be serving falafel, hummus wraps, pasta primavera with grilled veggies, grilled chicken, bean salads…his recipes go on.

“Things that are healthy, that they’re currently wanting to eat,” he said.

And increased sales at cafeteria registers will be all the funding the district needs — even in the early months — to support the same-sized free and reduced-price meal programs, he promised. The board has not worked any of the specifics out yet, but Dussling was confident this can be done within the existing budget.

“By bringing more students back into the cafeteria, we’ll generate more money,” he said. “We’re going to make that up with students coming back.”

Stevenson High School left the National School Lunch Program about 30 years ago, spokesman Jim Conrey said, and has been contracting with vendor Sodexo since. Lunchtime visitors to its themed cafeterias often see long lines of Patriots, and sugary/salty vending machines dot the hallways.

Community Consolidated Elementary District 21 has long taken part in the National School Lunch Program, and continues to; at their School Board meeting May 15, members discussed their high school district’s decision, then renewed their contract with their vendor, Chartwells. Kildeer-Countryside Elementary District 96 is also part of the program; about a month ago, they renewed their contract with Organic Life.

In Vernon Hills and Libertyville, Community High School District 128 has never been part of the program.

“We don’t have enough low-income students to qualify for it,” speaker Mary Todoric said.

Dussling said that it will revamp its menus, but will not be changing vendors — thus, there is no chance of the shake-up opening doors for local farmers to put their produce on school lunch trays.

The nutrition debate goes to the heart of what role public schools play:

• Should schools offer tasty/sugary/salty foods, giving young minds the opportunity to decide when to buy them and when to opt for healthy options?

• Should schools eliminate such temptations, protecting impressionable minds from paths that will lead to hard-to-break bad habits?

Dist. 214 is opting for more options — and more locally generated revenue.

“It all depends on what you as a district are seeing,” Dussling said.

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