School districts scramble to meet tightened nutrition regulations
This summer, New Milford officials will grapple with how to create a policy to ensure any food brought it will meet nutritional standards, meaning cupcakes for students’ birthdays could be a thing of the past.
Schools already are required to ensure food and beverages provided during breakfast and lunch meet nutritional standards, but now these rules have been extended. The new standards include food sold at vending machines, school stores, at fundraisers and in cafeterias, as well as requiring district policies for treats brought in for classroom parties.
“Connecticut state law is actually more strict than the federal laws, so this won’t be a major change for most districts because the Healthy Food Certification Law has been in place in Connecticut since 2006,” said Laura Stefon, the state Department of Education’s chief of staff and legislative liaison.
School boards in the area have voted to either adhere to the standards or opt out, with many casting their votes at meetings this month to meet a July 1 deadline. Districts could face penalties for opting out.
New Milford school board members voted to comply at their last meeting.
Brookfield voted last week to meet the nutritional guidelines. But a district policy on what can be brought in to schools during the school day will not be adopted until the fall, officials said.
However, some schools have chosen not to participate.
Ridgefield rejected the changes because administrators said the language was too broad and could be applied to activities outside of school hours, including sporting events and fundraisers. They worried the standards would apply to any organization that uses school buildings.
A memo from Ridgefield’s superintendent states Newtown and some other towns have opted out of the Healthy Food Certification Statement.
“We have a healthy program,” Paul Hendrickson, Ridgefield’s business manager, said at a meeting. “It’s the fact that if we fill this out that we will adhere to these standards, we have to supervise all food that is served in any capacity at the high school and we can’t guarantee that.”
Districts are required to enforce the rules. Already, some restrict what can be brought in because of food allergies.
New Milford Superintendent of Schools Joshua Smith said the real challenge will be crafting the district’s policy for items brought in and deciding how to enforce it. He anticipates the biggest impact will be seen in the younger grades when parents are more likely to bring in food to celebrate a child’s birthday.
“This has been an evolution in the district anyway,” Smith said of the healthier guidelines. “Maybe this is the next phase.”
Cafeteria and vending machines already meet the nutritional standards and its Parent Teacher Organization doesn’t sell food as part of any fundraisers during the school day, he said.
Kathleen Lewis, the townwide PTO president for New Milford, doesn’t expect the changes to have a large impact on its activities, which usually are held outside of school.
“We do sometimes supply ice pops on Field Day,” she said. “We’ll now just purchase them through the cafeteria to make sure they meet the guidelines.”
The new policy requirement stems from changes at the federal level with the publishing of the final rules in the Federal Register, which strengthens requirements on public involvement, transparency, implementation and evaluation, Stefon said.
The changes only apply to schools in the national school lunch and breakfast programs, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This would severely limit the types of food and beverages that could be served during non-school hours and would also result in higher food and beverage costs,” Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin wrote in a memo.
She argues the district would have to hire staff to monitor and enforce the policy, which would increase personnel costs. School boards can choose to exempt after-school events, such as sports games, plays and dances. Bethel, New Milford and Brookfield have all done this.
“You can serve a hamburger at a Friday night football game as long as your Board of Education approves that exception,” said Teri Yonsky, Bethel’s director of fiscal services. “It has to be an event though. It can’t just be pizza at the end of the day.”
While Stefon said the Agriculture Department is still determining penalties for schools that opt out, many school officials have said not participating could translate to reductions in federal or state funding districts receive from free and reduced lunches.
It’s difficult to determine the actual dollar figures districts might lose since it depends on the number of meals provided and how they are reimbursed.
Smith estimates New Milford could lose more than $100,000, while Brookfield places the figure closer to $32,000.
Danbury does not allow food or drink to be brought in, except for students’ snacks from home, because of concerns about how the food was prepared and allergies. The district instead provides parents and staff with lists of alternate ways to celebrate or reward students, according to Danbury Public Schools’ 18-page wellness policy, which was revised in April.
Danbury encourages organizations not to sell food as a fundraiser and, in its policy, suggests different ideas to raise money.
Bethel has ensured any food sold to students during the school day meets or exceeds the state’s nutritional guidelines since the federal Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act passed in 2010. The district requires parents or guardians to pick up any food items, such as candy, sold as part of a fundraiser that do not meet the guidelines.
Suzanne Rodgers, the accounting supervisor for Bethel schools, said the state has been encouraging parents to avoid bringing in junk food for parties and bring in pencils or do an activity instead.