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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.”
The other issue raised by ultra-Orthodox schools has yet to be resolved. The dark-green vegetables, praised for their nutritious value, pose a real problem for some in the Orthodox community. “The problem of insect infestation has been confirmed by numerous rabbinical authorities and kosher certification agencies, and many schools have raised this problem,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Washington director, said in a statement.
Cohen and his colleagues explained to USDA and Department of Education officials in an October 2012 meeting and subsequent communications that purchasing certified insect-free greens would cost four times as much as uncertified vegetables and that hiring inspectors to carefully examine each spinach leaf would also be cost prohibitive.
Furthermore, they noted that if forced to serve broccoli, collard greens, lettuce, kale, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens or watercress, without proper certification, parents will simply advise their children not to eat the vegetables, thus defeating the cause of making school lunches healthier.
“We are not in any way opposed to changes in school lunches. We think it is a laudable goal to give children more choices,” Cohen said in an interview. “We just want to make sure that everyone’s needs and objectives can be fulfilled.”
The USDA did not respond to questions presented by the Forward regarding food policies for ultra-Orthodox schools.
In an attempt to find a creative solution for the problem caused by the potential presence of minute insects in leafy vegetables, ultra-Orthodox activists have hired the services of a nutritionist to come up with alternative meal options that would provide equal nutritional values while avoiding vegetables viewed as problematic.
The law permits variations to school lunch menus in order to address ethnic and religious requirements as long as they remain within the nutritional guidelines. It is now up to the USDA to determine whether such changes can be made. “There is an understanding that accommodating needs is not a church-state violation,” Cohen said.