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High School withdraws from National School Lunch Program

Cape Elizabeth High School has withdrawn from the National School Lunch Program.

The federal program subsidizes free and reduced-price school lunches for students who qualify, but the subsidy comes with a price that the Peter Esposito, Cape Elizabeth's nutrition director, says is exceeding its worth:

"Kids just aren't eating it," Esposito said.

The School Board on Nov. 13, 2018 unanimously voted to withdraw the High School from the program because guidelines regulating calorie content, portion size and percentages of whole grains - to name a few - have made foods served at the cafeteria unpalatable. "We're wasting money and we're losing counts as far as people buying lunch and we're losing a la carte status," he said.

From the time Esposito arrived at Cape Elizabeth schools in 2009 until 2013, the nutrition program was self-sufficient, he said. "We never received any town subsidy whatsoever. We were able to support ourselves including salaries, benefits, equipment repair, some equipment ... out of our own money that we generated."

During the school year 2013-14, revenue from sale a la carte menu items at the High School was $107,580.97, with no transfer of funds necessary from the general school budget to meet expenses. Three years later, in 2016-17, revenues from sales were $18,354.60, with $87,358.90 transferred from the general fund.

Esposito attributed the decline to the federal guidelines, which became effective in 2012 under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The guidelines, according to Esposito's handout, gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to set new standards for food sold in lunches during the regular day, including vending machines.

The act also:

  • Limits milk served to nonfat flavored milk or 1 percent white milk
  • Reduces portion sizes in meals
  • Mandates a minimum on fruit, vegetables, and whole grain servings
  • Mandates a maximum sodium, sugar, and fat content

"What's happening is a lot of that food is getting thrown away," Esposito said. School surveys, reports from student advisory groups and individual complaints support those findings. High School Principal Jeff Shedd, as well as student representatives on the School Board, agreed that sale of entree meals at the High School are rare.

Taking the High School out of the National School Lunch program will mean less waste, but will also allow Cape schools to get back to more of the locally sourced, "from scratch" recipes Esposito introduced when he started working at the schools. "Now it's getting harder and harder to make those recipes work with the current guidelines, because of sodium levels, calorie content, (etc.)," he said.

For example, federal guidelines limit a serving size of macaroni and cheese to 2/3 of a cup - something that just won't satisfy a teenage appetite.

Another example is baked Cheetos snacks, laden with artificial flavors and colors, that are allowed under the guidelines while organic RX Bars are 10 calories over the 200 calorie limit and therefore cannot be sold.

High School only

Cape's withdrawal applies only to the High School. The program and guidelines still apply to lunches at Cape Elizabeth Middle and Pond Cove Elementary schools, where Esposito said participation is good.

Costs and subsidy

Cost of a school lunch entree is $3.25. For each that is fully paid the School Department receives $0.37 from the federal government; reduced-price lunch gets a $2.97 subsidy; and free lunch get a $3.37 subsidy.

This year, five High School students participate in the free lunch program and four receive reduced-price lunches. Withdrawal from the program will mean a loss of $28.73 a day in lunch subsidy, and another $14.91 per day for the breakfast program. Still, Esposito predicted the sale of bagels - that students will actually buy and eat - will make up for that loss. Qualifying students will still get their free and discounted lunches.

Withdrawal from the national program does not mean things like soda and candy will begin showing up at school, he said. School policy prohibits on-site sale of such items, but also, "I think ... people (who) know me ... know that the integrity of my program means everything," said Esposito, who said he comes from a restaurant family. "We want to be able to sell a full-size bagel, or make our soups from scratch and not have to buy something and sell it that's frozen and heated up," he said. "We have not done that and don't want to do that, we'd rather bake everything from scratch."

Cape Elizabeth also has one of the premier farm-to-school programs in the state, but Esposito believes the program won't be affordable if sales of school lunches continue to decline. "I mean we were in magazines before and everything for what we were doing, and I had kids from California calling and asking for recipes, and now it just seems like it's all for naught." Esposito said.

Esposito is also the school nutrition director in Scarborough.

Two other Maine high schools, Falmouth and Greely, have also withdrawn from the program, said Walter Beesly, child nutrition director for the Maine Department of Education, in an email. The department has had a couple of other schools leave but then come back, Beesly said.