Out of Order: Schools Quash Takeout Trend

By: - June 3, 2019 12:00 am

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Students in middle and high schools across America thought they had found a way around cafeteria “cuisine” and boring brown-bag lunches: just hit up delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub or UberEats and get takeout food sent to their schools.

Now, citing security and nuisance concerns, school districts from California to Delaware are cracking down.

“The other day a student asked me if he could get food delivered and I said, ‘No!’” said Leslie Blaha, a science teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, who was standing in line at a Chipotle Mexican Grill across the street from the school.

“If they get it delivered to the school, the main office sends it back,” Blaha said. “We can’t have food coming from an unknown source that we don’t know what’s in it.”

The fight over lunch deliveries may seem minor, but the easy availability of fast food is no joke to nutritionists — especially amid the Trump administration’s drive to overturn school lunch standards put in place during the Obama administration. Seven states, including New York and California, have filed a lawsuit to stop the rollback.

Sarah Reinhardt, food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said allowing students to order restaurant food for lunch means “there is no one looking out for their nutritional needs.

“Fast-food meals often contain more salt and usually come with sugared drinks,” she said. “That’s why we have regulations on school lunches that help keep kids healthy.”

Some districts, however, had more prosaic reasons for banning the deliveries.

Delivery drivers in Sacramento had to register at the front office, creating havoc. Some parents in Wilmington, Delaware, occasionally would bring food they had prepared at home for their kids, until they discovered the restaurant delivery services.

Pati Nash, public information officer for the Red Clay School District in Delaware, said food deliveries at several schools were becoming “disruptive.” One school, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, sent an email to parents.

“Students should not be ordering food from Grubhub, DoorDash, etc. during school hours,” said the email from Dean Julie Rumschlag, which Nash forwarded to Stateline. “This is a safety concern that also disrupts the educational process within our community. Please do not order food from outside vendors to be delivered to the school during the school day.”

The bottom line, according to Nash: “Random people delivering Thai food is not part of our safety plan.”

The school district in Montgomery County, Maryland, which includes Montgomery Blair High School, has banned food deliveries districtwide, with the exception of a handful of schools with “open lunch” policies.

“Students were going to [class] late and saying, ‘My food got here late,’ and we said, ‘Nice try,’” said district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.

“It’s a logistical nightmare,” Onijala added. “You have dozens of students coming down to the office every day, and they have to be called to pick up their lunch.”

Students in the Chipotle across the street from Montgomery Blair said some students circumvent the rules by meeting delivery people just outside the school, which also is against the rules. “It’s OK to do if you don’t get caught,” said the student, a junior, prudently refusing to give her name.

At Granite Bay High School near Sacramento, a ban on all deliveries to students — not just food but homework, backpacks and clothing — caused some grumbling, but mostly among parents.

“The administration got tired of being errand runners for parents who were delivering pretty much everything to their students and expecting the delivery would make it to Jimmy or Susie in their classrooms,” Karl Grubaugh, a teacher and faculty adviser to the school newspaper, said in an email.

Now, students must retrieve any items delivered by parents from a table outside the front office.

Despite repeated requests from Stateline, none of the major delivery services would comment for this story.

Former first lady Michelle Obama made school lunch nutrition a policy priority during her time in the White House, and the Obama administration issued strict guidelines designed to make meals healthy as well as appealing to kids. Sample menus replaced hot dogs with whole wheat spaghetti, pizza sticks with chef salads, and whole milk with skim.

The Trump administration has rolled back some of the standards, specifically those that require the use of whole grains, lower sodium foods and nonfat flavored milk. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue quipped, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk.”

But Reinhardt of the Union of Concerned Scientists cited a 2015 study in the medical journal Childhood Obesity showing that under the Obama-era rules, which took effect in 2012, students consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables, and consumed the same amount of milk as they did before the changes.

She worries that the delivery boom will make it more difficult for school officials to influence kids’ dietary choices.

“What happens if we have no way to reach kids with dietary guidelines?” she said. “If kids aren’t eating meals at schools, the buck stops there.”

The School Nutrition Association, a professional organization representing more than 58,000 school lunch workers, supports more flexibility than the Obama rules allowed on whole grains and sodium. But Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for group, said fast-food lunches undermine nutritional standards and harm students’ health.

“School meals are required to meet … sodium limits, and limits on calories and saturated fats,” she said. “Every meal has to offer students fruit, vegetables and low-fat or fat-free milk. Students that participate in the national school lunch programs have better diets than nonparticipants.”

Another downside to delivered lunches, Pratt-Heavner said, is the “stigma it places on the kids who really rely on school meals for their nutrition and don’t have the means to order UberEats or meals on the side.”

Kristi L. King, senior dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, said in an email that school lunches have been designed to provide one-third of a student’s daily estimated calorie needs, and that “by consuming foods from fast-food places, the students may be missing out on essential nutrients especially if they do not eat breakfast or dinner, which many don’t.”

“A lunch of just french fries is not enough.”

In an email, Chipotle spokeswoman Regina Wu emphasized that the fast-casual chain has nothing to do with school delivery policies.

“We partner with delivery companies” such as DoorDash, Wu said, “to fulfill delivery orders that are in compliance with the established guidelines of the area.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.