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Wisconsin districts seek solutions as school lunch quality comes under fire

By Erin Gretzinger
Wisconsin Watch

When Sadie Perez entered Indian Trail High School and Academy on a November morning, school work was not on her mind. Instead, the then-junior was focused on an upcoming speech to the Kenosha School Board. She planned to bring a pressing concern to their next meeting — bad lunches.

Supply chain snafus

In accordance with federal guidelines, school meals are made up of different food “components” — including lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy — based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. School meals also need to meet various specifications including calories, sodium and fat content.

For example, students in grades kindergarten through five should have an average of 550 to 650 calories for lunch, while high school students should get between 750 and 850 calories. At all grade levels, the amount of saturated fat is supposed to be less than 10% of total calories.

All the nutritional “checks and balances” that go into planning school meals can be difficult to juggle, especially for schools with fewer staff and resources, according to Harrison, who is also the food service director at the School District of Elmbrook in Brookfield.

The pandemic-era supply chain problems threw the already-complex procurement process out of whack as many schools across the nation relied on the same large vendors for their products. In the School Nutrition Association’s fall 2021 report, 99% of school meal directors surveyed cited product shortages as a challenge for their programs.

“I can tell you from experience, two or three days a week were spent on figuring out what we were going to get on the truck. And if we weren’t going to get what we wanted, we had to spend hours a day determining what we were going to serve students,” Harrison said.

Those challenges — coupled with labor shortfalls and other factors — have dramatically changed what students see on their plates.

To help ease the stress of product shortages, federal waivers have relaxed nutritional requirements for school meals and provided flexibility in what items they could serve. Additionally, Harrison noted an increase in the use of pre-packaged foods because of COVID-19 safety and logistical concerns, which also impacted the quality of food.

Free meals and curbside options during the pandemic meant more students and families were exposed to school meals — at a time when meal quality dipped.

‘Pink’ chicken, other problems

In Kenosha, Wilson and Perez noticed fewer students seemed to be eating the meals provided by the school as quality decreased. They also heard that the spicy chicken sandwiches, which appeared pink on the inside, gave students stomach aches.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it (school lunch) because I was too scared of getting sick,” Wilson said.

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