Operations

Biting the hand

It’s hypocritical to take government money and then suggest, as one school official did, that the government should not expect accountability.

I was intrigued the other day by a news report, out of North Carolina that stated Haywood County Schools had received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing the district to ignore the regulation that requires school districts to offer only 100 percent whole grain items.

Instead, the school district will, for the foreseeable future, be allowed to serve items that are made with 50 percent whole grains.

Haywood County is not alone. Sampson County Schools, in the eastern part of the state, also recently received a waiver, and several other districts in North Carolina have applied—as have districts in other states.

The waiver provision was approved by Congress in December 2014, after the School Nutrition Association complained to the USDA that a number of school districts were finding it financially difficult to implement the whole grain regulations.

The government’s decision to create the waiver provision didn’t surprise me. As I’ve stated in previous opinion pieces, I think the USDA jumped the gun in its implementation of the regulations required by the 2010 law. Despite the pleas of foodservice professionals that the agency test the new regs in a few key districts to uncover and fix any potential stumbling blocks, the agency had opted to roll out the rules nationwide.

What gave me pause was a comment in the news article from Haywood County’s associate superintendent. He was quoted as saying, “Let’s leave food solutions to parents and let’s not try to manage that from Washington.”

I’m not a fan of government regulation—but I understand it’s a necessity in our society. No agency or institution can reasonably expect the government to fund a program or project without also anticipating that there will be strings attached. A number of states found that out years ago when the Department of Transportation tied funding for highway projects to a mandatory minimum drinking age.

The National School Lunch Program is one of those government-funded initiatives whole role has steadily gained importance, particularly over the last decade, as more families have qualified for the free or reduced-price meal provisions covered by the program.  School foodservice directors gather in Washington, D.C., every March to lobby the federal government for more money to help meet the needs of these students while remaining financially solvent.

School officials in Haywood County might prefer that the federal government keep its hands out of school foodservice. They have that right, and there is a simple way to effect that: drop out of the National School Lunch Program.

But as long as you are willing to accept the government’s money, you have to take the caveats that go along with it. Work with the government to change those rules you believe are unfair or overly restrictive, but don’t expect you can take the money and run.

One final note on the Haywood County story: The district plans to celebrate the waiver April 1 by serving free biscuits and gravy to all students and staff. I wonder what that will cost them?

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