By Carmen Byker Shanks

BOZEMAN – The Bozeman School Board voted on July 13 to suspend the National School Lunch Program at the high school level. Given the significance of this change, there is reason to review the potential impact for Bozeman high school students and the greater community.

To fully understand today’s federal NSLP requires a brief review of school lunch history. The Department of Agriculture in 1946 established the NSLP through Congress’s approval of the National School Lunch Act.

The program was designed as a measure of national security to provide stable funding for nutritious foods that promote student health, learning and academic achievement. Created in the aftermath of the Great Depression and two world wars, the NSLP established only minimum nutrient requirements, as excess consumption was not a concern at the time.

In response to the upward weight trends among youth since the mid 1970s, the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act required updates to the meal patterns and nutrition standards for the NSLP and the School Breakfast Program to “ … enhance the diet and health of school children, and help mitigate the childhood obesity trend.”

Citing lower participation rates and a drop in revenue as evidence, Bozeman is among the few schools nationwide to drop the federal program. Moving forward, the school district and the community should require careful oversight and reporting about several important issues outlined below.

Focusing on quality nutrition is important given that NSLP participants – i.e., high school students – consume approximately 40 percent of their actual caloric intake at lunch.

The NSLP provides critical nutrition to limited-resource students through free or reduced meal prices for qualifying students. More information about the application process under the new meal program, including measures to avoid stigmatization, is necessary to ensure that the 18 percent of students in Bozeman High School that qualify for free or reduced meals are reached.

With the Bozeman School Board’s vote, $117,000 dollars in federal subsidies are being turned down. According to recent self-reported figures, Bozeman High School lost $200,000 in revenue since February. Reports from other schools around the nation show that repealing the NSLP results in bigger budget deficits as a result of decreased access to opportunities provided by the federal program. For example, NSLP kitchens have access to over 100 bulk foods provided by the USDA to schools at low or no cost.

Data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction website shows that participation in the NSLP at Bozeman High School has remained steady and this starkly contradicts media reports suggesting a decrease in participation. Research also shows that decreases in school lunch participation nationwide began in 2008 – before the new nutrition standards – and national participation has been rising since March 2014.

Montana schools have faced changes due to the new nutrition standards and are managing to maintain, or work toward, financially viable foodservice operations while accommodating student food preferences. The Bozeman School District has an outstanding foodservice infrastructure – especially in light of the recent $4.5 million kitchen renovations, opened in August 2014 – capable of meeting the NSLP nutrition standards that are being met by school districts across Montana.

Bozeman High School is an open campus school. To a high school student, the freedom to take a break from school during the lunch hour may always outweigh the allure of any on-campus food options. The off-campus migration of students resulting from an open campus policy must not only be expected, but accounted for within any financial forecasting.

Pre- and post-consumer food waste has been one concern about the new nutrition standards that the media has highlighted. The validity of these claims, however, is disputed in an article published in 2014 in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. What we do know is that steps can be taken to reduce food waste in all areas of foodservice in order to reduce food costs and increase nutrient consumption. These well-researched best practices should be tested at Bozeman High School.

Bozeman High School foodservice plans to implement strategies to improve participation and financial prosperity including using more local food; increase marketing of lunches; using customer satisfaction surveys; and implementing a menu app for smart phones. Other districts have successfully implemented these ideas under the NSLP to increase participation and improve the appeal of foods offered.

Time and results will determine if this decision was an act of foresight or folly. For school lunch programs, the bottom line is about much more than revenue. Decision-makers must understand that at its core, NSLP seeks to ensure that all high school students receive proper nutrition to grow and learn.

Carmen Byker Shanks, PhD is an assistant professor of Food and Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems at Montana State University. She is the Principle Investigator of the Behavioral Nutrition Research Group at The Food and Health Lab at MSU.