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Maine High School Opts Out Of Federal School Lunch Program, Says It's Too Limiting

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public

Cape Elizabeth High School became the latest school in the state to pull out of the federal school lunch program last week. District officials say the decision was made due to federal guidelines that it feels are too stringent.

The National School Lunch Program has long been a part of school cafeterias. For more than 70 years, the federal program has provided reimbursements to schools, subsidizing meals for students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. It's used by nearly every public school in Maine.

The program also comes with nutritional standards. Those include changes in recent years to make meals healthier, like requirements for more whole grains and limits on calories and sodium. The changes are largely supported by health groups, but school officials have criticized a few parts of the newer standards, saying they've resulted in more expensive food preparation costs and fewer students using the school lunch program.

In Cape Elizabeth, nutrition Director Peter Esposito says his district has struggled, too.

"There were so many things that we were limited on what we could serve," Esposito says.

Esposito says Cape Elizabeth has long worked to provide healthy meals, including sourcing fresh foods from local farms. Yet, he says that some of his students' favorite foods have had to come off the menu due to the new rules. Esposito says kids don't like the new, whole-wheat pizza, and some miss bagels and pretzels. He even says the school has had to change its homemade soup recipes because they don't meet requirements.

"The sodium level or something, might have been too high," he says. "But our recipe, that was a good, wholesome sauce, didn't meet it anymore. So I had to try to curtail it, to make it. But it's just not the same."

School officials say that when they surveyed students recently, they found that some weren't satisfied by smaller portions, while others threw away parts of meals.

According to Esposito, the district also saw revenue from it's "a la carte" items, like snacks, fall by more than $80,000 since 2013. In the face of that decline, and with a desire for more culinary freedom, last week the town's school board decided to pull the high school out of the National School Lunch Program.

"I would like to get back to, basically, what we started with, our roots, and get back to scratch cooking," Esposito says. "But also, we had 'chef of the month' programs where we had chefs from local restaurants in town, in the area, would come in and cook a meal. We couldn't do that anymore because it never met the guidelines. So I'd like to bring all of that back and bring the excitement back. And just make sure my kids are fed well."

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
While the high school has opted out, Cape Elizabeth's middle and elementary schools will stay in the program.

Only about 3 percent of Cape Elizabeth's High School students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, one of the lowest figures in the state. That means the school will lose about $40 per day in subsidy from the federal school lunch program. But Esposito anticipates that without federal guidelines, the school can offer meals that he thinks will be more appealing to kids. That potentially means more sales to make up for the lost federal dollars. The district says it will continue to offer subsidized meals to students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Walter Beesley, the child nutrition director with the Maine Department of Education, says that Cape Elizabeth joins Falmouth High School and Greely High School in Cumberland, who also don't participate in the national school lunch program.

Beesely says that withdrawing will mean less funding assistance and oversight.

"We really wouldn't even visit that school to see what they were doing," Beesley says. "It would be totally up to them to decide what they were going to feed the students or whatever they might want to do."

In the absence of federal standards, Cape Elizabeth says it still plans to prioritize healthy options and continue to source fresh foods from local farms. And while the high school has opted out, Cape Elizabeth's middle and elementary schools will stay in the program. Beesley says under state statute, those lower schools are required to participate in the federal school lunch program.

Originally published Nov. 21, 2018 at 4:10 p.m. ET.