In the last decade, school nutrition has become a political battleground and a huge part of the presidential administration’s health initiatives. But as evident at a Durham event last week, parents, nutritionists, and school management are frustrated with current standards.

Powe Nutrition Working Group held a panel discussion last Wednesday that was open to the public. The group of parents from Durham’s E.K. Powe Elementary coalesced around shared frustrations over the nutritional value and quality of food served to their children at school.

One major quip: donuts for breakfast.

“We were finding ourselves frustrated when we were dropping them off and seeing them eating Super Donuts and Frudels for their second breakfast,” said Tina Prevatte, a Powe parent. She also expressed worry for children who aren’t getting a healthy breakfast at home before school, and rely solely on school food for morning nutrition.

Jenni Grover, another Powe parent and the director of nutrition for Lifestyle Medical Centers, compared a week of the posted breakfast menu versus what she observed being eaten in actuality. For Friday, the listed meal item was a pork sausage biscuit and mixed fruit, with various “a la carte” items like donuts, Pop Tarts, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, and honey buns.

“I don’t really trust my child to pick the right choices,” Grover said. “They like healthy foods, but they would absolutely pick that donut.”

Megan Lott, senior associate of policy and research for Healthy Eating Research at Duke’s Global Health Institute, said both national and local standards must be met by school nutrition services.

According to Lott, new standards passed in 2012 are generally allowing for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less overall sodium, salt, and fat.

Still, the required calorie limit is often enhanced by added sugar instead of nutritional calories—hence why the Super Donut meets federal standards. The American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of around six teaspoons of sugar, but the school’s breakfast alone nearly hits that limit.

“These guidelines that we are given are not necessarily something we agree with,” James Keaton, director of Child Nutrition Services for Durham Public Schools, told Wednesday’s attendees.

He said regulation makes it so tossed salad is deemed unhealthy, but an energy shot or coffee in high schools is okay. It is also not allowed to put “local” on a bid, instead a mile radius is required if a school wants to receive food from the state.

The current system also limits purchasing options. Schools are required to purchase certain products from a governmental bid system. As Lott explained it, if a school wants sweet potatoes but the cheapest available sweet potatoes come from outside the state, they would be the bid that is accepted, even if North Carolina potatoes are available.

“They have to go with the lowest bidder,” Lott explained to the group last week. “So if a product meets the nutrition standard and it’s the lowest bidder, even if it’s not what they might want to purchase, that’s where they have to go.”

“It’s tricky how to get around these government bids,” Keaton said, “but we’re working on that right now to get more fresh, local produce in here.”

Child Nutrition Services only receive $3.24 from the federal government per lunch, according to Lott. But it costs the schools $1 to make each meal. After paying all of their costs, Lott said they are lucky if they have $1 to $1.50 left to put food on a student’s plate that meets all of the requirements. In Durham, CNS went from making a small profit of about $200,000 to losing $1.2 million. The next year, they lost $1.5 million. Last year, they were able to cut that to $500,000 in losses.

Keaton said that the federal government will only reimburse carbohydrates for breakfast, and won’t reimburse proteins like chicken or eggs. When fats and proteins are limited, the required calorie count relies on carbohydrates, he said.

For this reason, it’s difficult to avoid formulated products like the Super Donut, even with programs that allow a slight stretch in the budget for local foods.

“Can the kids distinguish the Super Donut from a donut at Monut’s down the street?” Lott asked the group. “Probably not.”

Advocates for school meal programs, however, cited progress on a grand scale.

“It’s been demonstrated for many years that the national school lunch program and the school breakfast program both have been really positive impacts on children,” said Emily Welker, program coordinator for Healthy Eating Research at Duke’s Global Health Institute.

She says that these programs are put into place to help alleviate local food insecurity and childhood obesity, and, on a national scale, have improved attendance and academic performance as well.

Welker cited general research that claim meals served in the school breakfast program meet national standards for nutrition, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. There is currently not a set limit for the amount of sugar in school meals.

“Foods may not look like they are very nutritious, but they’ve been formulated to meet those nutrition standards,” she said. “School food has come a long way over the past few decades. It wasn’t too long ago that ketchup was considered a vegetable in a school lunch.”

Despite the claim, parents expressed frustration over the quality of actual fresh foods, like fruit, which provide unappealing alternatives. Fred Broadwell, a Powe parent, said that he noticed pears at the school, but they were unripe and rock hard, so children were passing them up.

In 2013 when federal standards went into effect, six million less meals were served in North Carolina because children didn’t want to eat any of the food options.

“We can’t continue in that pattern,” Keaton urged the crowd. “We need to get more children eating.”