Pam Harris Discusses Federal School Lunch Rules

Home » Here and Now » All Episodes » Pam Harris Discusses Federal School Lunch Rules

Pam Harris Discusses Federal School Lunch Rules

Premiere Date: 
June 6, 2014

Harris, the Mukwonago HS dietitian, talks about the rules championed by the First Lady.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Next up, what's for lunch? Kids complaining about hot lunch at school is nothing new, but now some school districts themselves are complaining about the federal school lunch program. And those complaints have gone political, with the House Appropriations Committee allowing schools to suspend the new rules that require healthier choices. Specifically, the rules that started in 2012 mandate that students are given both fruits and vegetables every day. They limit portion size and calories and call for low-fat foods and whole grains. Saying, it’s too tough to comply, some districts in Wisconsin have left the federal program altogether, and the federal cash reimbursement that goes with it. In Mukwonago some students staged a boycott of the healthier lunches two years ago and the district considered bailing on the program. The $450,000 federal reimbursement to the district kept them coming back. Pam Harris is in charge of the Mukwonago School District food service. She joins us now from Waukesha. Thanks very much for doing so.

Pam Harris:

Hi, Frederica. Thanks for having me.

Frederica Freyberg:

Well, do you understand how other districts would want to bail on the federal school lunch program because of these new rules?

Pam Harris:

Yes. It's difficult to accept that the government, the federal level, is micromanaging the diets of kids. Sometimes that whole concept, that Big Brother concept, has caused even the Mukwonago school board to consider dropping out of the national school lunch program as well.

Frederica Freyberg:

And yet as a dietician and with many years experience in this field, you agree with offering healthier choices.

Pam Harris:

Naturally, I would like to see all Americans eating better. The obesity problem and our healthcare crisis are directly related to the fact that our diet isn't the best. And I like to see kids taking fruits and vegetables. I dream of the day when kids will tell me that they don't have enough vegetables on the menu. But I need to be realistic and work within our budget as well.

Frederica Freyberg:

What was the big problem in Mukwonago that prompted the boycott on the part of the high schoolers?

Pam Harris:

The high schoolers came in the first day of school in September 2012 and noticed that the amount of food on the lunch was less, and that we had also increased the lunch price by 10 cents. That in particular got them upset. They felt that it was pretty bold to charge more for less food. But the increased lunch price was also part of new federal mandates. So we did not have a choice on that either.

Frederica Freyberg:

How did you resolve that? Because you've told me that all the high schoolers that were in the program are back now.

Pam Harris:

Well, one big help was the fact that the USDA did relax the guidelines in early December of 2012. They had imposed calorie limits, but also limits on the number of servings of grain products and the number of servings of meat products. And in December they lifted those grain and meat restrictions. So that gave me more flexibility with menu planning.

Frederica Freyberg:

What about the complaints, and I imagine it's true in your district as well, that kids throw a lot of this healthy food in the trash so there's a lot of expense and waste?

Pam Harris:

That's a big concern. One of the things that, really all school food service programs, have done as a result of these regulations is to increase the choices of fruits and vegetables on the menu. Which is a great thing, in my opinion, but the USDA requires that every school lunch contain at least one-half cup of fruits or vegetables even if the student didn't want them. So in my experience as a dietician working with eating behavior, forcing someone to take something they don't want just puts that food straight in the trash can.

Frederica Freyberg:

I want to go quickly now, we just have about a minute left, to some of the food choices that you have in your school district and some photos you sent of your lunches. And one of them is a turkey sub, and it's got on the plate a bag of Doritos. Now, that bag of Doritos doesn't seem like a real healthy choice to me. How does that square with the new rules?

Pam Harris:

The Doritos, beginning next fall, those particular Doritos will not comply with the regulations for ala carte purchase. So we would not be able to sell them individually to a student. They will still be allowed on the lunch, because they're a whole grain product.

Frederica Freyberg:

And let me go to one more picture, and then we'll probably have to wrap it up. But it's a plate that includes chicken nuggets and then a couple of bread sticks. And so, is this something that could stay or will new rules require you to reduce some of these calories as well?

 

Pam Harris:

That lunch can stay pretty much the same. The chicken nuggets are breaded with a whole grain breading, and the breading was reduced so that the chicken nuggets are lower in calories and fat. And the bread sticks are also a whole grain product.

Frederica Freyberg:

Okay. Well, complicated business, and thanks for the work you do, Pam Harris.

Pam Harris:

Thank you. 


We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your comment or story suggestion.

Get to know the Here and Now crew.

Find information on elections and candidates and connect to coverage from Wisconsin Public Television and Radio.