School lunch presents nutrition dilemma for some parents

Nandini Seshadri of Latham is already feeling the crunch to make sure her children get a good lunch during the school day. Even as the opening of the school year approaches, the pressure to cross-check lunch menus and pack a satisfying, healthy lunch for her children triggers a stress reaction formed during the pandemic.

Seshadri’s children, now in fifth and eighth grades in the North Colonie School District, started receiving free school lunches at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to mitigate the demands of at-home learning.

“We were completely overwhelmed,” she said of the sudden shift in routines. Seshadri would drive her children to school each weekday to pick up their meals, then return home for online classes.

“When the pandemic began, the school lunches really improved,” she said. Fresh salads, vegetables, fruits and whole grains were the base of meals, with few prepackaged options. Once the return to school began in September 2020, that all changed. She said meals were frequently prepackaged, fresh fruit was replaced by fruit cups in a syrupy juice, and leafy and crisp salads were replaced by preserved bean salads.

“All of the sudden there was no fresh food whatsoever,” Seshadri said. “There were at least two sweet things a day.”

Because her children were in school for only half of each day, with the remainder of the day’s classes conducted online, Seshadri picked them up with their lunches and was able to see what was being offered by the school. Prepackaged blueberry muffins, strawberry-flavored dried cranberries with 24 grams of added sugar and chocolate milk with 16 grams of added sugar were common items. One day, lunch contained 84 grams of total sugars, she said — roughly the equivalent of 20 teaspoons.

The American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that children ages 2 to 18 should have less than 25 grams of added sugars daily, or about 6 teaspoons. 

Seshadri contacted her district’s food service department via email to ask about the shift away from fresh food. The response she received was from Lisa Ostrowski, director of food and nutrition services for the North Colonie district, according to the email, which Seshadri shared with the Times Union.

In it, Ostrowski said that the reason for the change is that the district has low participation in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free lunch to all students and reimburses the school for each student who receives the lunch. If less money is coming in, there are fewer funds to purchase whole foods, which are more expensive than processed products.

“Our volume at the Shaker High building is extremely low and we are not always meeting delivery requirements,” Ostrowski wrote. “We are feeding 10 to 11 percent of the children walking through the doors of Shaker High each day. That percentage is devastating for free meal distribution.”

Ostrowski also said in her email to Seshadri that other issues contributed to the shift. Under National School Lunch Program guidelines, produce must be grown in the U.S. to be covered under the reimbursement policy. (As of 2018, more than half of all fruit and one-third of vegetables consumed in the U.S. are imported, according to data from the USDA Economic Research Service.) Ostrowski also said that many of the prepackaged foods fit within the program’s guidelines and are specifically made and obtained through the program’s resources. Some of the school’s procurement sources change their products without notice to the school — for example, chocolate milk is made with 1 percent milk instead of skim — and the difficulties of packaging to-go meals also factor into what can be placed in lunch and breakfast bags.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Ostrowski said that the conditions described in her email to Seshadri remain true. Last year, students in grades 7 through 12 were only in school half a day or every other day, so many of the meals needed to be shelf-stable or reheated at home, which can prohibit the use of fresh products. She is still able to use federally and state-funded programs to secure fresh produce for her district, utilizing $70,000 worth of produce through the Department of Defense’s Fresh program and the Fresh Pilot program, which uses mostly local and New York-grown produce. She also gets commodity credits from the federal government, which is administered by state Office of General Services, based on the amount of free and reduced cost meals served. These programs and commodity credits constitute the majority of the operating budget for Ostrowski’s food program.

“We are lucky in our district that our free and reduced lunch population isn’t humongous,” Ostrowski said, but the lack of funding last year from a-la-carte items purchased by students outside of the National School Lunch Program created significant loss to her overall revenue, she said.

The National School Lunch Program was started in 1946 under the Truman administration and was last overhauled in 2010, under the Obama administration, as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The change enacted nutrition-based guidelines for the school lunch program based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (commonly known as MyPlate, formerly the “food pyramid”). But, as the guidelines did not offer daily recommendations for added sugars until 2015, that information was not included in the National School Lunch Program restrictions and requirements. 

Eileen Lindemann, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition science at Russell Sage College in Troy, said that most school cafeterias are funded independently of district budgets, serving as their own self-sustaining element within the school. Schools that participate in federally funded programs like the National School Lunch Program are reimbursed based on the number of students that receive a meal. Any school participating in federal lunch programs must abide by nutrition guidelines in order to be reimbursed.

Lindemann said that districts with less affluent families or with more students reliant on free and reduced-cost school meals have a more robust lunch program, as they have more access to federal funding and supplemental programs. This allows for hiring a labor force that can turn raw ingredients and fresh foods, which traditionally have less sugar and sodium than packaged foods, into wholesome meals for students. 

That is not an instant guarantee that students will eat what is being served, however.

“Some of the struggle with school lunch is if (students) are just dumping it into the garbage can, it’s not doing any good,” Lindemann said. Nutrition habits and dietary preferences are established at home, not in the school cafeteria, and districts sometimes struggle to introduce healthy food for students.

At Albany City Schools, school lunch director and registered dietitian Lisa Finkenbinder said that school meals provided the opportunity to give children two of their three square meals a day.

“I see (school meals) as an opportunity to rise above the challenge,” Finkenbinder said. “We encourage communication. If there is something a student doesn’t like, we will do everything we can to make sure a student doesn’t go hungry.” 

In Finkenbinder’s experience, the biggest challenge to providing meals since the start of the pandemic was a supply shortage, not funding or the preferences of students. Reliance on the free lunch program increased since the pandemic, which means more reimbursement into her lunchrooms. She also transitioned from the National School Lunch Program to the Summer Food Service Program, which has a higher reimbursement rate and allows any child in the community to be fed, regardless of whether they are enrolled in the school system.

The 8,600 daily meals Finkenbinder’s team prepares are not eaten in the lunchroom. Breakfast is picked up on the way to a classroom, while lunch is delivered to classrooms; still more are packaged for at-home consumption by students learning virtually. Packaging the meals adds extra labor to the preparation of meals, which means hands used to make something like whole grain waffles are reallocated to packing meals. The result is that waffles are now premade and wrapped, Finkenbinder said.

In contrast, because it became onerous to portion government-supplied canned fruit into individual to-go cups, Finkenbinder secured a ready supply of fresh fruit through a government-funded program. Students now receive a whole banana, apple or other fruit instead of preserved and sugary canned fruit.

Finkenbinder said that there are 20 job openings in food service for Albany City Schools, which complicates the dedication to serving healthy meals.

“We have worked with colleagues in other departments to pitch in. Everybody gets a little piece of what it takes to be a lunch lady,” she said.

“There is nothing better than giving a kid a meal and seeing the smile on their face.”

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. Her newsletter is available at and she can be found on Instagram, @deannanfox.

Author: iwano@_84