Faced with a potential $3 million loss in a la carte sales, Douglas County School District, in Colorado, has said no thank you to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Only 6% of Douglas County students qualify for free or reduced priced lunches. The district also decided in 2009 to open up its high schools so students could leave campus to get lunch. Those two factors meant Brent Craig, director of nutrition services for Douglas County, was facing an uphill battle for participation at the high schools.
In the face of those challenges, Craig’s team was making headway. They developed a create-you-own burrito concept and found success serving kids items they would actually purchase that were at the same time healthy. But the challenge was, the students were not purchasing reimbursable meals. Instead, Craig has relied almost exclusively on a la carte sales at his high schools. And those sales are under attack by new federal rules under Smart Snacks.
“When the first round of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act came out, we were one of the first ones to comply because we had already been doing [these healthy initiatives],” Craig recalls. “It really wasn’t a big deal for us. We were cruising right along.”
That is, until Smart Snacks came along. Craig figured out that in order to meet Smart Snacks guidelines he would have to alter or eliminate many of the a la carte offerings his high schoolers were fond of. “We developed this great burrito and we’ve been really successful with that,” he says. “But when they threw out these Smart Snacks, you’d have to have this really tiny burrito that kids would laugh at you and say, ‘that won’t fill me up.’”
Craig’s high schools also have Subway franchises, which are popular with students. But under Smart Snacks, the only option Craig could serve was a six-inch Veggie Delight with no dressing or toppings.
Through a financial analysis, Craig determined that if he changed his a la carte menu mix to meet Smart Snacks, he would lose $3 million in sales. Instead, Craig decided to drop his nine high schools from the National School Lunch Program.
“We couldn’t afford to lose $3 million in our nine high schools,” Craig says of the decision. “It wasn’t about trying to avoid fundraisers or competitive foods. It’s really about being able to run a viable program, because the district was not going to be able to support nutrition services by taking funds out of the classroom.”
But Craig doesn’t want to be seen as a “rebel.” He tried to keep the decision to drop out of the NSLP quiet, but local media outlets quickly picked up on the story.
“We’re about a balanced approach,” Craig says. “We’re very committed to healthy foods. But we’re also committed to making sure what we serve is what kids will eat. Those Smart Snacks rules are unrealistic. I support USDA and I think they are on the right track. I just think they fell off the cliff when it comes to Smart Snacks. If USDA can tweak some things on the calories and sodium, then we’ll go right back on the program. As it sits right now, it’s a financial disaster if I try to meet Smart Snacks regulations and meet the kids’ needs in the high schools.”