A truck laden with pallets of taxpayer-subsidized diced chicken, cheese and canned fruit rolled up to Londonderry High School Monday morning, marking an end to the New Hampshire district's battle with state and federal officials over its decision to opt out of Washington's unpopular federal lunch program.
The school district pulled its high school out of the National School Lunch Program after watching too much healthy food land in the garbage, Superintendent Nathan Greenberg told FoxNews.com last month. But the decision prompted a threat from state and federal officials to classify the school -- where meals for the entire district are prepared -- as a “food processing” plant -- subject to strict inspections and a raft of regulations. Late last week, the bureaucrats blinked, and the trucks rolled, after missing three deliveries.
"With a little support from the news agencies, especially Fox, and some help from our two senators and a couple of congressmen, the USDA has backed off," said Londonderry Schools Business Administrator Peter Curro.
"With a little support from the news agencies, especially Fox, and some help from our two senators and a couple of congressmen, the USDA has backed off."
- Peter Curro, Londonderry Schools
The problem, according to state and federal officials, was that food for the high school and meals for the district’s five other schools – which continue to participate in the subsidized program – were all stored and prepared in the high school’s kitchen. State officials, who must apply federal rules when administering the federally-subsidized program, told Greenberg that the dual system meant tracking the food to ensure against co-mingling would require the same standards as a “food processor.”
The change in status would have meant a bunch of new rules and regulations, backed by periodic inspections. Greenberg said the district would have had to either hire another employee or, potentially, build a new facility for preparing meals bound for the town’s middle school and four elementary schools.
Under a compromise reached last week, the high school will not be classified as a processing plant, but as a USDA sub-distributor. District officials will have to keep a strict accounting to make sure subsidized food isn't served at the high school, but it won't require hiring new employees or even building a new facility, as initially feared.
"To be fair, we knew that there would be some more inventory control, but my God," Curro said. "What they originally asked us to do, I don't think was possible."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to intervene, praised the department for backing down.
“I am confident that local school districts in New Hampshire have the ability to both responsibly manage taxpayer dollars and implement proper nutrition guidelines for their students,” she said.
Even Democratic Gov. Jean Shaheen applauded the decision, taking a swipe at the bureaucracy’s original intentions.
“I’m very pleased that this new agreement allows the Londonderry School District to continue providing meals for its students without a host of unnecessary new rules,” Shaheen said.
USDA spokeswoman Brooke Hardison told FoxNews.com the Londonderry situation was unique because participating and non-participating schools share the same storage and preparation facilities, but said it is up to state officials to ensure federal compliance with the lunch program.
“USDA’s primary goal in providing technical assistance to the state of New Hampshire has always been to ensure that tax-payer funded resources – in this case food purchased through the National School Lunch Program for the district’s elementary and middle schools – are used appropriately," Hardison said in a statement. "Our team met with the New Hampshire Departments of Education and Administrative Services on Oct. 23, and we are pleased that this situation was able to be resolved quickly so that the district can continue to utilize USDA foods in meals prepared for the middle and elementary schools, which remain in the National School Lunch Program.”
The 5,000-student district is just one of thousands across the country to find that the school lunch program, which sets portion and nutrition guidelines for students, is prompting students to trash the school lunches and pack their own. But the federal government enforces participation by tying it to subsidies for low-income students and low-cost staples including cheese, diced chicken and peaches.
After the Manchester suburb’s school board voted last year to drop the program, forgo the federal relief and create its own menu, school officials installed a new snack room, a coffee bar and a frozen-yogurt machine. A salad bar is set to open next month, and participation in the school lunch program is up more than 15 percent.
“We were able to offer nutritious lunches with greater variety,” Greenberg said. “We have seen greater participation and enthusiasm, as well as significantly less waste.”