Some Jewish Schools Challenging Fed Lunch Mandate over Non Kosher Insects

Romaine lettuce leaves (Photo: Amana Productions inc/Getty Images)

Critics of federal school lunch regulations say they waste food and money, that they infringe on an individual’s choice to eat whatever he or she wants, and that they’re not filling enough. Some students are even boycotting cafeteria food.

Now, ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools are finding it difficult to abide by the newly implemented federal school lunch guidelines, providing another example that this one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t “fit all.” That’s because the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act for which First Lady Michelle Obama vigorously advocated requires the serving of certain foods that some might consider non-kosher.

Ultra-Orthodox community leaders are now appealing to the government, asking their schools be given a pass from serving leafy green vegetables, a required menu option linked to their schools continuing to receive federal funding.

The Jewish newspaper The Forward which examined the issue reports:

Their reason has nothing to do with the taste of spinach, kale, or cabbage. It is because these and other leafy greens might be infested with tiny insects that would render them non-kosher. The groups have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find substitutes that would maintain the nutritional benefits of these vegetables without having ultra-Orthodox children risk eating food that might contradict their dietary laws.

It is an issue that relatively few in the Jewish community pay much attention to, and given the reluctance of most Jewish groups to negotiate with the federal government over funding, due to their reluctance to ask the government for special preferences tailored to any religious group, ultra-Orthodox activists find themselves alone in the battleground.

According to the Chicago Rabbinical Council, lettuce and other leafy greens have to be washed repeatedly to make sure no miniscule, non-kosher insects are inadvertently consumed. Vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and spinach offer ideal crevices in which the pests can hide. Thus, the Council warns the inspection process can be tricky:

The actual insect may not be what you are expecting. They are not flies, roaches or spiders, although these would certainly be a problem as well. Most of them are very small and hard to find due to their size and color, with some being as small as the period at the end of this sentence.

To ensure the greens are bug-free, they have to be washed in a bowl of cold water and a small amount of vegetable wash or non-toxic soap. If after removing the greens insects are found in the water, the process needs to be repeated until no bugs are found. After that, three sample batches need to be checked over a light.

The Kosher Spoon blog posted this photo of the time-consuming process:

Some Jewish Schools Challenging Fed Lunch Mandate over Non Kosher Insects

The labor-intensive process of debugging lettuce (Photo from Kosher Spoon)

It’s not only vegetables that are posing a problem for the ultra-Orthodox schools. The grain-based food limitation also contradicts Jewish ritual. In this case, the USDA agreed to a compromise. The Forward explains:

One problem stemmed from limiting the amount of grain-based foods served at schools. Administrators noted that for the purpose of saying the blessing over the bread (HaMotzi) and the blessing on nourishment (Birkat Hamazon) [the Jewish Grace after meals], students require a certain amount of bread, usually one slice. But that would take up all the grain allocation for a meal and would not allow other grain-based foods on the lunch plate.

In the meeting held in February with USDA officials, representatives of Agudath Israel and of the Jewish Education Project (formerly known as the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York) reached an agreement allowing schools to change the grain consumption as long as it does not exceed a calorie limit determined by the new law. “It was a good result,” said Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of day schools and yeshivas at the Jewish Education Project. “We maintained the calorie cap but solved the religious problems.”

Just because a school is serving food doesn’t mean the kids are eating it. NBC reported that Florida’s Lake County school district discovered that most of the fresh fruits and vegetables were being tossed into garbage bins, that is, $75,000 of produce wasted last year. School board members even considered attaching cameras to the trash cans to try to discover what kids don’t like.

School Board member Tod Howard told NBC, “They have to take it, and then it ends up in the trash can. And that’s a waste of taxpayer money, and it’s also not giving students the nutrition that they need.”

Because of the labor-intensive process of the multiple washing requirement, Jewish religious authorities told the USDA their estimate for the cost of purchasing certified, insect-free greens would be four times the price of the uninspected variety. The other possibility would be to hire extra staff to inspect each leaf, a pricey endeavor.

Like the parents in Florida, the Jewish leaders told the USDA that if they’re forced to serve uninspected leafy greens, parents will just tell their kids not to eat it.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director for the ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel, told The Forward: “We are not in any way opposed to changes in school lunches. We think it is a laudable goal to give children more choices…We just want to make sure that everyone’s needs and objectives can be fulfilled.”

The schools are now working with a nutritionist to look for alternative vegetables that will meet the federal guidelines. The USDA did not answer a query from the Forward to address the insect issue.

If those schools succeed in securing a compromise, it could encourage others to petition over other legitimate complaints.