Bryan Bedder

Bozeman High School—famous for naming winter storms and keeping cool in the face of hallway bears—is making headlines once again for dropping out of the National School Lunch Program, happily.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports that the school (along with others in the district) is seeing food sales rise after abandoning the lunch program this summer, which administrators say was driving students off campus to eat. Bob Burrows, who acts as the Bozeman School District's food service director told the Chronicle that “Our traffic is way up—over 1,000 (customers a day) regularly."

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Burrows made the appeal to drop out of the program to the school board over the summer. The Chronicle reported in June that the 2010 changes in federal guidelines, among other things, had resulted in a steady loss of revenue for the school's self-sufficient food services program. Per the Chronicle:

For the first time in 20 years, Bozeman’s school lunch program is losing money. As of February, revenue had dropped from $1.2 million to $1 million. Most of the loss happened at Bozeman High. The high school has long had an open campus at lunchtime. Students have the option to walk or drive off campus, and they can easily eat at nearby restaurants.

Burrows said at the time that alternative options to leaving the program, along with its guidelines and $117,000 yearly funding, included downsizing. Plus, high school students—who have the option of leaving campus for lunch—weren't having it. “We used to offer Rice Krispy treats and brownies, Wilcoxson’s ice cream sandwiches. Now we can’t serve anything but sugar-free ice cream. So they leave," cafeteria worker Alison Beckman told the Chronicle.

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The school board agreed in July to leave the program. That decision was met with resistance from some members of the community, who saw it as negatively impacting high school students. Carmen Byker Shanks, an assistant professor of Food and Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems at Montana State University, argued that Bozeman schools misstated the effect of the guidelines on participation in the program:

Data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction website shows that participation in the NSLP at Bozeman High School has remained steady and this starkly contradicts reports suggesting a decrease in participation. Research also shows that decreases in school lunch participation nationwide began in 2008—before the new nutrition standards—and national participation has been rising since March 2014.

Resident Marianne Hysop wrote in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle that she fears the change could affect Bozeman's poorest students. She wrote: "The school district seems to believe that it’s more important for our children to be able to make an unhealthy choice of food than it is for our schools to provide nothing but healthy choices," Hysop concluded, "forgive this grandmother of five for not understanding such thinking."

But the decision seems to be yielding results. The Chronicle notes that more students are buying food on campus now that it's not bound by national regulations. The school contends that it's still offering healthy options, and parents and students can keep track of food offerings (including nutritional information) online. The biggest difference to the new lunch program is calories per dish. The Chronicle reports:

The school district has imposed its own nutrition goals for Bozeman High lunches, based on the previous year’s federal guidelines for healthy foods. The goals are: 825 calories minimum; 30 percent of calories from fat; less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat; 1,500mg of sodium; 2 ounces of meat; 8 ounces of milk; a minimum half-cup of fruit; 1 ounce of grain minimum, and 50 percent of items served must be “whole-grain rich.” If Bozeman High had stayed with the federal program, lunches would have been limited to between 750 and 850 calories.

The money appears to be coming in directly from something called "Extra food” sales — basically, any food that doesn't reach the 825 calorie minimum. So far, the schools sold $54,000 worth of "extra food," across the district, up from $37,000 sold in the entire previous school year. In other words: teens love snacks.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.