OUSD nutrition: the facts and faults

Ariana Cross and Caden McCune

The implementation of nutrition rules on the Orcutt Academy campus has left students and teachers frustratingly confused. Many find it difficult to become properly informed on what the standards are for our campus, and how they can follow them. Here is a look at what the district and state have to say about our school nutrition.

The nutrition standards apply to what is sold through the school food program, during nutrition break and at lunch, as well as what is sold by staff and students. The exact restrictions on what makes food items able to be distributed are rather precise and complicated. The breakdown, as specified by the Orcutt Union School District Website, is: food items must be a whole grain rich grain products or have fruit, vegetables, dairy, or protein as the first ingredient, or be a combination of food that includes at least ¼ fruit or vegetable, or contain 10% of Daily Value nutrients (calcium, potassium, Vitamin D, or dietary fiber). There are also limits on calories, sodium, and fat. To find out exactly what is and is not allowed, check out the Smart Snack Calculator on the district website.  

The goal of the nutrition regulations is to make the food on campus healthier overall. This can be seen well in the school cafeteria with the implementation of more fresh food, and unique options like the mexican bar and whole-grain pizza. 

Orcutt Union School District Nutrition Director Bethany Markee entered our district four years ago with the goal of adding more fresh items, made from scratch for our students. She explains that as a district we are part of the National School Lunch Program. With this comes certain restrictions which the federal government creates, that our schools must follow in order to receive funding. These restrictions are where things get sticky. 

This set of rules regarding school nutrition funnels down from three sources: the federal government, the state government, and our own district’s policy. All schools in the district have to follow the federal government’s standards; however, as a charter school, we do not have to follow the state government’s standards. This means there are some small rules on which we have more freedom. For the exact rules and an in depth breakdown of the difference you can find the State’s standard here and the Federal standards (which Orcutt Academy charter school must follow) here.

When it comes to the federal and state nutrition policies, written regulations regarding competitive foods on campus have been established. Competitive food is considered to be any food or beverage item sold on campus, during school hours, by the school or any student organization. This means club fundraisers that involve food must meet nutrition standards as well. Markee states that she wants to make it as easy as possible for clubs to do food fundraisers and she encourages them to get in contact with her before selling any food so she can make the process as smooth as possible. She can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 805-938-8925.
In regards to non-competitive foods (foods that do not compete with the school lunch program) The Orcutt Union School District’s Local School Wellness Policy states the following (italics added by the Oracle):

The Superintendent or designee shall encourage school organizations to use healthy food items or non-food items for fundraising purposes. He/she also shall encourage school staff to avoid the use of non-nutritious foods as a reward for students’ academic performance, accomplishments, or classroom behavior. School staff shall encourage school organizations to support the district’s nutrition education program by considering nutritional quality when selecting any snacks which they may donate for occasional class parties. Class parties or celebrations shall be held after the lunch period when posstible.

However, an email with Orcutt Union School District’s Director of Nutrition Bethany Markee stated, “the clubs cannot offer, sell, nor “give away” snacks/foods during meal times in schools, as this is considered a competitive meal item and is not allowable on school campus.” Markee attributes this rule to the state/federal level’s regulations, “California has even stricter rules, it’s anything brought onto campus, bought or sold. Which makes it difficult for fundraising or even just having a potluck.” 

However, the federal and state governments do not place regulations on food given away on campus. We spoke with California State Nutrition Education Consultant Mike Danzik on this topic. Danzik shared, “There are no state or federal requirements for those [non-competitive foods], so it is totally up to the district on how they want to address foods given away.” 

This has become a large topic of interest on our campus as teachers and student organizations have been told to stop giving away food which does not meet the nutrition standards. ASB President Nathan Calhoun reported, “ASB has been told that all food given away must meet smart snacks requirements.” 

This is also seen throughout the staff as teachers were previously asked to stop holding food-based parties in classes, and told to stay away from food based rewards as well. OAHS Class of 2020 club advisor Michael Shaw confirmed, “According to a district meeting, teachers were told they are not allowed to give away any food that does not meet state standards. When asked why, the district said that it was state mandated.” 

This understanding is troubling. It is inconsistent in two important areas. First, the district does not seem to be complying with its own wellness policy. According to a district memo shared by business office official Lauren Whittham, “Any food given whether for money or not must be compliant during the school day.” However, as previously stated, the district-created wellness policy does not include this hardline language. 

The wellness policy as it currently stands is reasonable, stating that people are encouraged to follow nutrition standards when giving away foods. It allows for the district to push for better eating habits for its students, while also allowing room for other foods when necessary. The policy’s language allows for leniency in circumstances that are necessary such as occasional class parties or ASB’s birthday gifts. 

However, what the district actually practices lacks this level of discernment. It both goes beyond what its own district has set as official policy and does not allow any room for leniency when situations arise.

It is rather confusing why the district would adopt such strict regulations which Markee admits are not what she prefers, if in fact they are neither required by the state nor the Local Wellness Policy to follow these rules. 

In the end, the Orcutt Union School District has made significant and rather impressive strides in the school lunch program. The food has improved and there is now an increasingly wide variety of healthy food options. They do a good job of both accurately and graciously communicating with and helping school clubs make sure any food they sell meets nutrition standards. However, when it comes to food that is given away, the district should follow their own wellness policy and take a more hands off approach with non-competitive foods. . Clubs and staff members have experienced significant and unwarranted difficulty in their ability to give away food. While a majority of blame has been put on the state, it is ultimately the decision of the district on how they wish to regulate non-competitive foods, a decision that, up to this point, has been rather contradictory.