The West Virginia Board of Education on Thursday approved removing much of the state’s public school meal nutrition standards and tying them to federal minimum requirements, and approved allowing the sharing of homemade and non-nutritional foods in public schools — if county school boards also choose to allow them.
“It goes back to giving local control,” state school board member Miller Hall said of the policy changes.
But the changes, which the state board approved in a voice vote, also ban county public school systems from “penalizing students due to unpaid and/or outstanding meal debt.” Amanda Harrison, executive director of state Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition, said the language is intended to ban school systems from even denying providing a meal to a child who, ahead of being served, says they have no money.
The changes also ban, in more clear language, penalizing students for already outstanding meal debt. Penalties like denying students participation in extracurricular activities and graduation for such debt are banned, and “communication addressing financial matters shall be directed to parents/guardians,” with a ban on actions like “putting stickers or wristbands on children to remind parents/guardians to pay unpaid fees.”
All the changes will take effect Jan. 2.
The changes to Policy 4321.1 came despite opposition from people concerned about homemade food possibly harming children with allergies, about non-nutritional food entering classrooms for parties and about possible future decreases in nutrition standards for the main school breakfast and school lunch programs.
While Harrison said the policy changes won’t immediately drop nutrition standards in West Virginia schools, county school systems will newly be able to lift standards for school “celebrations,” and could define celebrations to include random snacks provided to all students in a class on random days. There is no stated limit on the number of such celebrations.
“They could define it, they could limit it, they could cap it to a certain number per year,” Harrison said, “they could say that the school wants to provide the food, or the PTA or PTO [parent-teacher association or organization] will provide the food, or they could say they want them to be food-free parties.”
Even before the changes approved Thursday, parents and guardians could allow their children to take non-nutritional and homemade food into schools for their own consumption, but the new changes open the door for a parent to provide, if local school boards allow it and under local school board regulations, outside food to be shared with students who aren’t their own.
Furthermore, if the federal government decreases the federal minimum nutrition standards that currently regulate the central breakfast and lunch meals provided to students across the country, West Virginia’s standards will automatically drop alongside the federal minimums unless the state board acts to maintain stricter standards.
But Kara Motosicky, spokesperson for the Mid-Atlantic Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, said Thursday that states and local education agencies, like county school boards, can’t deny federal meal reimbursement to schools that serve meals that meet the federal minimum requirements but not higher state or local requirements.
“As long as they are meeting those minimum requirements, they cannot deny reimbursement,” Motosicky said.
The state education department had originally proposed, in the version of the changes that went out for public comment in June, allowing high schools to provide students caffeinated beverages. But it reversed that proposal in the version the state board approved Thursday, and the state is also continuing to ban artificial sweeteners.
The version approved Thursday also doesn’t include the department’s original proposal that the non-nutritional foods and drinks newly allowed to be shared during school “celebrations” had to be “commercially prepared and/or packaged” and “contain a nutrition label and/or a complete ingredient list which identifies all items, and specifies any potential allergens that may be within the product.”
Before Thursday’s approval of the policy changes, the department also retracted its explicit original proposal to keep banning homemade foods from being brought in for such celebrations.
County school boards must adopt local wellness policies that contain “standards for all foods and beverages provided, but not sold to students during the school day.”
Harrison said the county boards must use the federally set process of developing local wellness policies to address what path they wish to take on allowing or disallowing homemade and non-nutritional food.
“There is actually a public policy process they have to follow in terms of stakeholder involvement, public comment and etc.,” Harrison said.
The local wellness policies can also limit what foods are served at sporting events, she said.
Michele Blatt, an assistant state superintendent, said that if a county board hasn’t yet revised its local wellness policy to allow non-nutritional foods and homemade foods, then the ban on those foods in schools is still in effect.
“I feel confident that the local wellness policies are going to address those things,” said state board member Debra Sullivan, who voted for the policy changes Thursday despite expressing concerns about the celebration food issue in June.
“It’s up to them now,” Sullivan said, “rather than the state trying to dictate every single bite, give the local [school] districts the opportunity to customize and educate their teachers, their parents, their students about the importance of nutrition and safe foods.”