Will voters bite on hot lunches?
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:31 PM
"Serving a hot lunch in public schools is not a new idea. Congress decreed in 1946 that to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, (Congress shall provide) an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.It was called the National School Lunch Act and though it has been revised, amended and updated over the years, the basic program is still in effect, serving 96,000 public schools, nonprofit private schools and child care institutions and about 27 million students per day.Oak Harbor kids are not among them.A four-year hot lunch levy could change that if voters give it a thumbs up March 13. The four-year, $137,000-per-year levy will pay for the custodial and supervisory crew necessary to make the program work. The lunches themselves and the staff to serve them will be paid for by federal and state funds and by a per-lunch charge of between $1.70 and $2 paid by students to purchase the meal.GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTENAccording to long-time Oak Harbor resident Dorothy Neil, local schools had a regular lunch program in place in the early 1930s, long before it was called for by the federal government. In a way, she said, the city was a pioneer in making regular meals available to students. Oak Harbor maintained the national school lunch program until 1975, when it was eliminated due to budget cuts and lack of student participation. At present the district only provides milk to its students. The middle and high schools operate limited lunch programs that do not satisfy national nutrition standards.Now lunch supporters say the need for a lunch program is back. They say nearly half of the district's roughly 6,000 students would take advantage of such a program, and parents moving to the area tell the district that the lack of a school lunch program is one of their biggest disappointments.But a levy proposal last spring, which contained provisions for a hot lunch program, failed to pass. Many of those who voted no said they did so because of the lunch.One of their major objections was that parents, not property owners, should feed their kids. It became a rallying cry for taxpayers tired of what they saw as a welfare-style system and a food giveaway.The argument may have been a determining factor in the levy's previous defeat but it had very little to do with the levy itself. Now, back on the ballot as a separate issue, the 7-cents-per-$1,000-valuation levy will not put even one carrot stick on anyone's lunch tray, said Lynn Goebel of the levy-support group Citizen's for Better Schools.We're not feeding the kids, she said intently. Those dollars are already out of our pocket.Both federal and state taxes have been collected to supply commodities and operational expenses to the National School Lunch Program since it began. Oak Harbor taxpayers already pay these taxes but local kids can't take advantage of the program because district officials say there isn't enough money to pay for ancillary activities such as lunchtime supervision and post-lunchtime cleanup. That's what the current levy will pay for.By not participating in the national lunch program the Oak Harbor district is passing up about $600,000 each year in federal and state money said Lori Taylor, a certified nutritionist and dietitian who sat on the district's food service feasibility committee last year.We'd be getting back a lot of money, she said. In addition, Taylor said the national program uses Department of Agriculture commodities, which in turn benefits U.S. farmers. DOES NUTRITION = KNOWLEDGE?At the heart of Taylor's argument in favor of the levy is good nutrition. She said The 1946 National School Lunch Act came about because the U.S. military noticed a decline in the physical fitness level of new recruits and traced the cause back to poor nutrition.It was a national security issue, said Taylor. My feeling is that it still is.The difference today, she said, is that it is mental fitness as well as physical fitness that is being put to the test. Numerous research studies have drawn a direct connection between good eating habits and such things as learning ability, test scores and grades.At the greatest risk are children of low-income families who may not be able to afford a good breakfast or lunch. Congress acknowledged this fact in the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 and to make sure everyone gets the same opportunities, established a process by which students could qualify for free or reduced-price lunches if their family income fell below certain levels. The vast majority of participating students will still pay for their lunches.The district plan calls for the use of a pre-paid credit card system which has proven to be faster at getting kids through lunch lines and provides public anonymity for those receiving free lunches.A MATTER OF TIMECurrently, without a hot lunch program, the Oak Harbor elementary school day has to be broken into two lunch periods - one for the kids and one for teachers. Because students currently have to eat in their classrooms, teachers are required to stay on duty through the kids' 30-minute lunch break. After that, the kids are sent to recess for another 30 minutes while the teachers get their break.If a hot lunch program is approved, the kids will go to a cafeteria or other central location to eat under alternative supervision while teachers use the same time to chow down. Even if you throw out the transition time it takes to move students and regroup, Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte said the addition of a lunch program would easily give students and teachers an extra 15 to 20 minutes each day of instructional time. Over the course of a year that could add up to more than 45 additional hours of classroom instruction.WHAT'S COOKING? AND WHERE?To make a lunch program work the district will need to construct a central kitchen facility to prepare and distribute meals. The current plan is to build the kitchen at the high school and pay for it using a combination of about $2 million in interest earnings on the district's 1996 capital improvement bond and other capital project funds.Such money can only be used for construction or other building projects and cannot be used for things such as new textbooks, additional teachers or special programs.School lunches themselves must meet nutritional standards and supply a portion of the minimum daily requirements for vitamins and minerals.We're not talking about brown rice and tufu because most kids won't eat that, said Taylor. School lunches have to reach a balance of what kids will buy and what is nutritionally sound.That means school lunches can feature items such as tacos, pizza and cheeseburgers, but unlike many of their commercial counterparts, the meals must contain no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat.Schulte said Oak Harbor is very unique when it comes to not having a hot lunch program. Of the state's 1 million school children, 99.4 percent attend schools where lunches are offered. The district was also unique in 1975 when it dropped the program. Schulte said he has never heard of any other school district backing out once a hot lunch program was in place.From what I've heard from other districts, if you mess with the school lunch program, it's one of the worst things you can do, he said.-----------------Lunch factsHere's an quick look at the Oak Harbor School District's Proposition 2, the National Hot Lunch Program Levy, which will appear on the March 13 ballot. What levy contributes $137,000 State matching money $71,240 Total $208,240Tax rate: 7 cents per $1,000 or $10.50 per year on a $150,000 homeDuration: four years What levy pays for:Custodians for nine schools working two hours per day for 172 days $ 55,945 Cafeteria Supervision for nine schools working 1.5 hours per day for 172 days $124,322 School Office Clerical for nine schools working one our per day for 172 days $27,973 Total $208,240How many students will use program? 44 percent Meals served per year 539,271 Meal Prices: Elementary $1.70 Middle & High School $2.00 How are food and services paid for?Federal existing funds $560,401 or 47 percent State existing funds $19,531 or 2 percentPaid by student/parent $612,626 or 51 percent What it buys:Food $460,975 or 39 percent Labor (cooks, cashiers, servers) $419,934 or 35 percent Equipment, supplies, utilities, other $178,034 or 15 percent Administration (director, business office) $133,615 percent 11 percent Source: Oak Harbor School District "