Par Hills Lunch Protest One of Many, Food Provider Says
The president of Pomptonian Food Service and Parsippany's schools superintendent say they understand why students are going on strike.
As students at Parsippany Hills High School continue to spread the word about the planned Friday School Lunch Strike protesting the government-mandated smaller portion sizes and higher costs of lunches provided at township public schools, the man in charge of the company that supplies the meals says he feels their pain.
"People don't like when something is imposed on them," said Pomptonian Food Service President Mark Vidovich. "The New York ban on soda has not gone over well there.''
"We are getting concerns from every school district we serve with the healthy lunch program. It's been companywide and nationwide complaints and protests since this started."
Vidovich admitted that the change in the lunch program didn't give the public, and especially students, much time to adjust.
"This is a dramatic change that was rushed through, though the [Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act] law was passed in 2010," he said."It's a very dramatic shift and it's being noticed everywhere."
Parsippany Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz said he isn't surprised by the threatened strike.
"We understand the student’s concerns and frustration," he said. "When this was presented to the board [last June], this very issue was raised and we explained that it is the law."
Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, school districts that do not comply are levied hefty fines. And Seitz said the law would have to be addressed.
"As far as the students bringing their lunch, that is a fine option but does not really get to the issue," he said. "I would suggest that a more meaningful option would be to organize a letter writing/email/texting campaign to the federal agencies and the White House, [to] the folks responsible for the new regulations.
"I know the students are not happy, but the district does not have the option of ignoring the regulations."
Vidovich said the complaints, strikes and protests are getting attention in Washington.
"I understand there are two congressmen proposing legislation to change [the law]," he told Patch. "When there is this sort of outcry from a large number of people, including the students at Parsippany Hills. ... Who knows where that will go or how long that will take."
However, the stated purpose of the law is to combat obesity, which is a growing problem in the nation.
Seitz said the situation offers a teachable moment for students and adults regarding the things they eat and portion sizes.
"In light of the serious obesity problems in our country, this is an opportunity for all of us to examine our eating habits and, if necessary, make some changes to a healthier diet," he said.
And if the goal is to provide kids with healthier meals, Vidovich wondered whether the program as implemented may backfire.
"The legislation is addressing the wholesome, five-component meal," he explained. "We're shrinking the entree of the healthy meal. But that could trigger the law of unintended consequences. If we chase them out of the building [or they opt not to purchase the healthy lunch], surely they are not going to buy healthy fruits and beverages or unsweetened milk. They're going to choose something with fries and a soda.
"As soon as [the federal government] announced the rules late in the school year and announced the maximums, which had never been a part of the school lunch program before, I was concerned that this might happen."
Vidovich said "maximums" refers to calories in a meal. Last year, a meal had to have a minimum of 825 calories, and now, under the law, there is a maximum of 850 calories."
A Kansas high school illustrated its students' take on the matter with a YouTube video called "We Are Hungry."
Of course, if the kids are not hunger-free, it may be because they aren't eating all the food given to them—specifically the fruits and vegetables.
"Fruits and vegetables are being given to students whether they want it or not—and they end up being discarded," said Vidovich.
He said a lunch room monitor at another school served by Pomptonian photographed students routinely tossing fruits and vegetables into the garbage.
"Pomptonian has always promoted students making their own choices," Vidovich said. "We won an award in 2011 for our Farm Stand program, which brought to the school a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and was very successful."
Vidovich also said that government representatives ignored negative comments from food service providers and educators and went forward with the lunch law.
"It wasn't until the training when the impact of the minimums and maximums came to light. it wasn't until May that we realized how dramatic a change this was going to be," he said.
As for the potential effect of the Par Hills lunch strike, Vidovich said the greatest impact will be on the Board of Education.
"The revenues in the cafe go directly to the board; so do all the expenses, food purchases and labor costs," he said.
He envisioned that the district will suffer a one-day loss of revenue, because the food must be prepared and paid for whether the students buy it or not.
"If it's just for one day to make a point, it will create a deficit for the day, but the program will be able to absorb that," he said.
"We will do our best to minimize the impact."