Opinion: Federal mandate warrants easy appeal process

The amount parents pay for school lunch is going up by a nickel locally, which may not seem like a lot.

But over the course of the school year, it will be the equivalent of a trip to the grocery store for some families. For some families, trips to the grocery store can be a painful experience.

The Elk River Area School Board begrudgingly approved the increase this past Monday with a line standard in their business: “Ah, shucks, we’re mandated to do this.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an easy, straightforward appeal process afforded by the federal government for districts that feel they don’t deserve to be subjected to this mandate — or other mandates?

This mandated price hike included in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act addresses  problems the feds apparently have with school districts taking advantage of federal subsidies should not be handed down to districts that are doing a good job and what is expected of them.

Sodexo, the firm ISD 728 contracts with for food services, is doing a good job of improving its operations, keeping prices reasonable and offering more healthful selections. They’re moving in the direction the ACT is designed to take the nation’s school lunch programs.

Sodexo has worked on improving its product and service and it has paid off. They witnessed a 4 percent increase in the number of lunches sold this past year and a 13 percent increase in the number of breakfasts sold.

In the mornings during the school year, they are reaching record numbers of families with free and reduced-price breakfasts, and hurried families simply choosing the convenience of having breakfast at school.

More than half of those eating breakfast are in this latter group, but that’s not to say those families are not watching their dimes and dollars.

Highlights from last year’s food service during the school lunch hour include increases in the amount of fruits and vegetables kids are eating.

Farm to Market produce is increasingly popular, including items grown locally.

A sample fruit bar gave kids a chance to try things such as mangoes, dates and figs this past year, and grapefruit has been added as a regular in the line-up due to its popularity during sampling.

If you don’t like grapefruit, there are always at least six different fruits offered each day in an effort to ensure kids are eating fruit.

Sodexo is moving to offering whole-grain-rich pasta, rice and breads this year. A salad bar is being offered district-wide in the secondary schools. Ala carte items like pizza are being traded out for toastable sub sandwiches.

And as new guidelines for caloric content, salt and sugar are drawn up, Sodexo will be there to adapt — if they need to. They might already be there, as they haven’t waited for mandates to improve their program and the healthfulness of their food.

Why punish the Elk River Area School District, which would have considered changing vendors had they not seen the sharp improvements to food services?

Clearly, their lunch prices are not the lowest in the state or nation, and a record number of families have exercised the option to apply for and receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Sodexo and the school district have promoted use of the free and reduced-price lunch program, but they have not exploited it. They have made it clear to families they have a confidential application process and that there’s no reason not to apply if you think you might qualify.

This added revenue is being used wisely — not just to keep prices low without care and concern for students’ health and well-being.

Some of the food preparer’s profits have been turned back into the schools — such as a new oven in Zimmerman at the secondary school, salad bar additions to some middle schools, a new food warmer at Parker Elementary School and an additional serving line being added at Salk. And one of the most exciting changes is LCD screens that will be placed in the high schools to offer nutrition tips and nutritional information on the food being served.

Sodexo’s school lunch program also includes a culinary arts competition involving elementary students, a school supply drive and a reading program where serving crews read to students.

Students and families in the Elk River Area School District are paying their fair share for lunch and getting a good value, and they shouldn’t be penalized because other school districts throughout country have not been as aggressive at improving their program while at the same time addressing health concerns at the root of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The district should be able to appeal these mandated increases that the local system and food provider are not calling for, and in a way that allows them to keep their energy on the business of educating children. It would be a good exercise in learning how to deal with other mandates. — Jim Boyle, editor