Eat well; be well.

The National School Lunch Act was established as “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.” The year was 1946; the president, Harry S. Truman.

Sixteen years later in 1962, President John F. Kennedy set aside one week in October as National School Lunch Week. This year it fell between the 14th and 18th with “School Lunch across the USA” as its theme.

Back in the 50s and 60s, however, school lunch offerings came under little governmental scrutiny. We, therefore, happily consumed our fair share of nutter-flutter sandwiches, pizza, and fries—and downed it all with full-fat milk.

Meanwhile, back then and despite all those now-taboo foods, obesity was petty much unheard of. Nowadays, though, and despite federal regulations, 33% of our young people are either overweight or obese—nearly triple the rate in 1963. Indeed, it’s become the #1 health issue in America for parents—topping even drugs and smoking.

One result: Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Now the law of the land, it mandates in detail what kids can be offered at school for lunch. Among its many requirements:

  • Calories are capped at 650 for kids in grades K-5, 700 for middle schoolers, and 850 for those in high school.
  • At least ½ cup of fruit per day must be served in grades K-8, and one-cup per day in high schools.
  • K-8 schools must offer ¾ cup of vegetables every day; high schools must offer one cup per day.
  • K-8 schools must serve a minimum 1-ounce serving of meat per day & 2 ounces in high school.
  • K-5 schools must offer 8 to 9 ounces per week; 8 to 10 ounces per week for grades 6-8; and 10 to 12 ounces per week for high schoolers.
  • Sodium and saturated fats amounts are limited; trans fats are banned.
  • Only skim and low-fat milk can be offered; flavored milk must be fat-free.
  • Servings of whole grains had to be increased.

Not everyone is cheering, however, especially not active high schoolers who primarily bemoan the calorie caps. And that includes Kansas football player Callahan Grund who went so far as to make a music video parody of “We Are Young,” by singing “We Are Hungry.”

All such complaints convinced the Agriculture Department last December to do away with the daily and weekly maximums of meats and grains. That’s apparently it, however, when it comes to wiggle room.

Other than that, abide by the rules or else.

Explains the Montgomery Call’s Bill Landauer: “Without the right food on the child’s tray, districts can’t apply for federal reimbursements, which cover a part of the cost of providing school lunch.”

In other words, the banana goes on the tray. If it’s tossed in the trash, so be it. It was on the tray, so the meal qualifies. No banana? No federal dollars.

Meanwhile, if in compliance, schools receive cash reimbursements of $2.93 for every free lunch served, $2.53 for reduced-priced meal, and about $.28 for every lunch served to a child not eligible for benefits. Plus, schools with 60% or more of its students receiving free or reduced priced meals receive an additional $.02 for every meal served.

And that’s a big deal because some 5.2 billion school lunches are served every year to about 32 million children. It’s a big deal for taxpayers, too, since it was thought that the guidelines would cost “just” $3.2 billion over five years. Turns out that might be a low estimate, though, given the fact that, in FY2011 alone, 10.1 billion federal dollars went into the program.

In the end and financially speaking, for the most part the act is cost-effective for schools with a large number of students who qualify for either free or reduced-price lunches. Not so for other districts, though, and that’s one reason some are opting out of the program. So far, that figure is said to be about 1% of all districts, with another 3% possibly following suit.

Take, for example, Montgomery County’s North Penn School District. Last year, its North Wales Elementary was so successful with its on-the-tray healthy choices that it decided all of its schools would participate this year and go for one of the Agriculture Department’s Healthier US School Challenge:

  • Gold Award of Distinction: $2,000
  • Gold: $1,500
  • Silver: $1,000
  • Bronze: $500

That was then . . .

Now, Pamela Gallagher, North Penn’s coordinator of school nutrition services, is backing off somewhat from her commitment to the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act. One reason: even with those federal reimbursements, it’s costing the district an additional $.23 per meal.

Another is that fewer students are now purchasing their lunches, slipping from 56% to 50%. That, naturally, means revenue declines. In an effort to minimize losses, middle school lunches went from $2.80 to $3, (more of those students buy their lunch than any others), but it’s not enough to offset losses.

Then there’s the fact that, as Gallagher says, “Quite a bit goes to waste, but mostly at the elementary level, and mostly fruit and vegetables.” Oh, yes, and those hungry high schoolers who, like Grund, complain that the 850 calorie lunches aren’t enough to fill them up.

The result: she’s laid out a couple of options for the school board to consider for next year:

  • The district opts out of the National School Lunch Program at the high school level, where it goes it alone.
  • The district follows the standards and takes more cost-cutting measures where feasible.

Stay tuned. I haven’t even touched upon the School Breakfast Program. In some places, such as Philadelphia, a free “universal breakfast” is served daily to all students, needy or not. Meanwhile, the trash cans keep filling up, now in the morning, too.