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Deciphering the letter of school-lunch laws

Nationwide, administrators, parents and lawmakers have been chewing over the implications of new federal school-lunch rules aimed at fostering healthier eating and helping children avoid obesity. The rules, which basically require schools to serve more fruits and vegetables and cut down on salt and fat, were largely applauded while also bringing up concerns ranging from government control over what our kids eat to some who say leaving things like pizza and french fries on the list of allowed foods show the measures don’t go far enough.

But we don’t need to look to the rules for some telling tales that illustrate how complicated it can be to interpret them.

Our first story isn’t tied to rule changes but does reflect some of the confusion districts face when trying to properly enforce the federal regulations that govern the programs that fund their food programs. Culinary students at Newton North High School in Massachusetts are learning the art of running a restaurant, including what happens when a key piece of an eatery’s target market stops showing up. The aspiring chefs, who currently feed members of the faculty and are preparing to open their Tiger’s Loft restaurant to the public, can no longer feed their fellow students, The Boston Globe reported.

At issue: Whether federal regulations that prohibits competing vendors from serving lunch in the same cafeteria applies to a student-run restaurant that operates separately, a question that wasn’t raised for years until the city contracted with new vendor Whitsons Culinary Group in 2011, the Globe reported.

Last month, another school district made the news when a staff member tossed out the lunch a student brought from home and replaced it with a school-lunch tray from which the girl ate three chicken nuggets and the school billed her mom $1.25. What’s more interesting than the story itself are the comments on blogs such as this one from the Houston Chronicle, which included a running debate on whether cheese counts as dairy or protein.

In California, a lawmaker is taking advantage of the national debate over childhood obesity and nutrition to push for a measure that would force the state’s food trucks to stay farther away from schools than medical marijuana dispensaries must, according to national reports including this one from Food Safety News.

“In many California cities, more than 80% of the public right of ways are within 1,500 feet of a school. Without suitable areas to operate, a large number of mobile restaurants will be forced out of business,” said Matt Geller, chief executive officer for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendor Association.

And finally, there’s the pink slime. Chef Jamie Oliver brought the stuff to the nation’s attention when he whipped up a batch on a TV show a few years ago. More recently, McDonald’s said it would quit using the substance created by grinding together beef scraps and other byproducts and treating them with ammonium hydroxide to kill dangerous bacteria, to create a product that’s eventually worked into ground beef and hamburger patties, The Daily reported.

“My objection with having it in the schools is that it’s not meat,” said retired microbiologist and former Food Safety Inspection Service scientist who has been voicing concerns about the additive since the 1990s.

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