08/29/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Do the New School Food Regulations Actually Hinder Scratch-Cooking?

You may have read about a controversial decision by the New York City Department of Education to discontinue a popular NYC school lunch program run by Wellness in the Schools (WITS).

WITS oversees "Cook for Kids," an initiative which trains school cafeteria staff members in scratch-cooking, partners leading NYC chefs with schools, employs parent volunteers and teaches kids about healthful eating.  WITS is part of the First Lady's "Chefs Move to Schools" planning team, so it was all the more surprising when the NYC DOE revoked authorization for the program, claiming the WITS fresh, scratch-cooked meals don't meet the new federal school meal regulations.

Parents in WITS schools lamented the fact that their children's improved lunches would likely revert to more processed food, a perverse result of legislation intended to improve school food overall.   Wrote one parent:

Sample [WITS] menu items include: Mediterranean baked chicken, whole grain  pasta with pesto (made with fresh basil and chick peas), vegetarian chili, and homemade flatbread pizza with fresh vegetables. All WITS schools have a fresh salad bar daily with multiple dressings made from scratch.  The kids  love it and have come to expect the healthier menu.
When the USDA announced its plans to improve the school food menu across the country we were thrilled.  So imagine our surprise when we learned that NYC  School Food would not be giving our school or ANY school, permission to  serve "real food" for the coming school year! After teaching our children the value of healthy eating, training an army of school cooks in healthy cooking techniques, and enlisting the help of hundreds of parent volunteers,  like myself, we would be returning to hamburgers (but with whole wheat  buns!), chicken nuggets, and mozzarella sticks (but with a whole wheat dinner roll!).

The good news, reported in the New York Times, is that WITS has now apparently assured the NYC DOE that its menus can be tweaked to meet the new regulations, and the program has been given a reprieve.  But this episode illustrates how the new school food regulations, which certainly are a net positive (more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, etc.), can also create unintended negative consequences in schools already ahead of the curve in providing healthful school food.

That topic is discussed in-depth in school food reformer Dana Woldow's recent interview of Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch.  Choicelunch is a California school food caterer supplying healthful meals to over 250 schools, most of which are affluent enough to operate outside the National School Lunch Program.  But in those districts in which the company does operate under the NSLP, Justin explains how the new school food regulations can tie the hands of schools wanting to offer students the sort of appealing variety likely to attract fully paying customers (thus bringing more money into the program), and not just those students who are economically dependent on the school meal.

And when it comes to scratch-cooking, the gold standard for school meals in the minds of many parents, Justin thinks the new school meal standards may actually encourage more reliance on processed food.

Under the old regulations, schools could plan their menus with either a "food based" approach (which looks at the categories of food served at each meal) or using the "nutrient standard" method (which let schools tally up overall nutrients served).  I greatly disliked the nutrient standard method, formerly used by my district, because it seemed to create an odd "nutritionism" approach --  as when our kids were actually required to take a package of animal crackers every morning at breakfast for the iron contained in the fortified flour.  That's why I was happy that the new regulations abandon the nutrient standard method, but Justin feels that the food based planning system may actually hamper scratch cooking:

Big manufacturers of school foods have always benefited the most from the regulations. Even with the old regs, a scratch-cooking district with lots of choice on their menu had to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to even write a menu that complied, let alone document their production process sufficiently. At least in the old system you could fall back on nutrient standard menu planning and load in all of your recipes and click a button and see "Did I make it? Yes or no?" Now you don't even have that option [because the new regs require a different standard called food based menu planning.]

Contrast that to "big food" who can grind up chicken, pump it full of soy filler, bread it and form it in the shape of a perfect 1oz dino nugget and put a CN label on it. And the knockout punch is that they can often do all of that for cheaper than a district can make a meal using raw chicken (not to mention the food safety implications of handling raw poultry have most districts so scared that very few will even do it).

If you're a cash strapped district, are you really going to put all of the effort and headache into a scratch program when it's so cumbersome to run, and food brokers are banging down your door with solutions that are cheaper and easier, and designed to check all of the boxes? The answer was "no" even before the new regs, so I can't see how adding complexity to the regulations is going to lead to a wave of scratch cooking in our schools.

I do agree that, even apart from the intricacies of the new regulations, districts fortunate enough to have the assistance of groups like WITS in New York City, or with affluent populations able to pay higher meal prices, better food is more achievable.   And for the majority of districts struggling to meet the new school food standards with inadequate funding and labor, the highly processed, lower priced, heat-and-eat entree will continue to remain an alluring option.