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Londonderry pushes back against USDA on school lunches

Union Leader Correspondent

October 20. 2015 10:30PM

LONDONDERRY — The school board on Tuesday night unanimously voted to send a letter to elected officials asking for help with solving a dispute between the school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding school lunches.

The letter signals that Londonderry is gearing up for a fight with federal regulators over the government’s intention to classify Londonderry High School’s kitchen areas as a “processing facility” — akin, the school district says, to Tyson Foods, and subject to the same regulations.

“To some degree, it feels to us like it’s vindictive, because we made a move to do something that we felt was appropriate for us,” said Superintendent Nate Greenberg, referring to the decision to pull the high school from the federal school lunch program this year.

“It’s not ‘it feels vindictive.’ It is vindictive,” replied school board vice chair John Laferriere.

School officials say they made the decision because students weren’t eating the food and the program was wasting supplies and money.

Leaving the program meant the high school is forgoing commodity products — certain foods the USDA provides at very low prices, including cheese, diced chicken and peaches, dining services director Amanda Venezia and school district business administrator Peter Curro explained at the school board meeting Tuesday.

Though state surplus processing and regional USDA officials approved a preliminary exemption for the high school to receive and process the district’s other schools’ commodity shipments, Venezia said, it ran into roadblocks at the national USDA office.

The school district says the designation would force Londonderry to comply with costly and labor-intensive regulations. These include a requirement to submit an “accountability and reconciliation plan” documenting various aspects of production and waste.

The kitchen would also be subject to “more than monthly” inspections, Venezia said.

Earlier Tuesday, representatives of the USDA’s national office told the Union Leader they did not yet have enough information to comment; it was the same response the USDA made Monday.

Venezia told the school board the district receives an annual total of 28,000 cases of commodity products in nine shipments for the elementary and middle schools. But due to the lack of an approved plan this school year, it has already missed three shipments, forcing Venezia to purchase foods privately.

School board members and school district officials were clearly angry at the USDA’s classification.

“We’re being stonewalled, and we’re being held hostage under our own program,” Laferriere said. “Essentially, we want to get off the federal teat. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. And we’re getting penalized for it.”

Curro said he is particularly dismayed because the new program this year has thus far seemed to be successful. Participation in the high school lunch program is up by 4 percentage points, despite higher prices, and sales are up as well.

Due to its departure from the national school lunch program, Londonderry also must now pay for the students who receive free or reduced-price meals — about 8 percent of the high school population.

The letter approved by the school board will go to the governor, state congressional delegation, commissioner of education and maybe local state representatives.

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