Editorial: Obamacaf - Noble intentions, poor results

JOSHUA KNAPP, 4K, reaches for a napkin as he is checked in to the hot-lunch line at Green Lake School. Aaron Becker photo

Strange sounds have been emanating from our school cafeterias lately. They’re rumblings of student bellies and the grumblings of parents.

No one, it seems, is happy with the federal government’s nutritional standards for school-served meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by the First Lady and signed into law by President Obama in December 2010, was designed to raise a healthier generation of children by tying the first major changes in school meals in 15 years to federal subsidies to school districts.

Taxpayers foot the bill for the $12 billion free and reduced-price lunch program that serves more than 31 million American children. Forty-three percent of Wisconsin children are eligible — 33 percent in Ripon, and 29 percent in Green Lake — according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

The law creating “Obamacaf” authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service (FNCS) to establish nutrition requirements for federal-subsidized school lunches ... Program critics have argued that it makes no allowances for students’ varied sizes and activity levels, increases federal involvement in locally governed school districts, results in far more food waste and encourages former hot-lunch eaters to boycott the school cafeteria and, instead, receive their lunch-time nourishment at the local Kwik Trip or McDonald’s.

... Ripon School District Business Manager J.J. Gutman warned the Ripon School Board last July that school food service deficits are growing at an alarming rate — from $9,723 in 2012 to $21,690 in 2013 to $58,843 last year. No coincidence, food service participation has dwindled from 155,409 meals three years ago to 145,922 in 2013 to 129,596 last year.

It’s that same trend — while noting that more food is going directly from tray to trash — that caused the Green Lake School Board last month to drop out of the federal school lunch program in hopes of offsetting the free and reduced-cost lunch subsidy loss by boosting participation back up.

Ripon’s Gutman and Green Lake School Board member Marty Valasik, who formerly held the position in Ripon that Gutman now assumes, tend to wear green eyeshades when they champion their schools. Both have told their respective school boards that they don’t want to see dollars diverted from the classroom to the cafeteria.

Of course their concern is valid. But the current situation is not sustainable for either school district.

“Kids don’t like the food” served at Ripon schools, School Board member David Olson said last July, adding that more students would eat in the cafeteria if the food were better.

Green Lake food server Jean Rabenhorst said essentially the same thing last month. “... The kids that come through the line take the food but it goes in the garbage. The food is not helpful and beneficial to the children if it’s not going into their mouths.”

Ripon should keep an eye on Green Lake’s decision to drop Obamacaf, to see whether it’s possible for food servers to prepare nutritious meals sufficiently appealing to build up the ranks of hot lunchers. Of course, if Ripon is operating at a substantial loss, it may not be able to afford the option of losing the free-and reduced-meal subsidy.

The Obamas’ intentions are noble. Most students, and for that matter adults, probably need more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less salt, sugar and fat.

But good intentions don’t necessarily build bodies.

Better that efforts to provide healthy yet tasty lunches be served to the states, who can experiment with menus and then share best practices.

... former Ripon Area School Board member Heather Hartling told her colleagues last summer about what her then 12- and 13-year-olds thought about their hot lunches.

“Half the time they don’t eat it and they come home hungry,” she said.

Rumbles and grumbles. — Tim Lyke

To read the entire editorial, see the March 5, 2015 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.

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