A new federal mandate trying to curb childhood obesity by restricting the number of calories allowed in school lunches has not only left students hungering for more food, but also had an unintended effect on school budgets and low-income youths.
Nicolle Bazant Pleil, the food service director for Avella Area School District, said her district has more students who are on free or reduced-price lunches than those who are obese, meaning the slimmed-down meals are not always offering enough sustenance to the kids who need it the most.
“It looks good on paper, but not when you actually present it to the kids,” Bazant Pleil said of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act passed by Congress in 2010. “It’s hard to explain to kids that this is all the calories we can give them. We have big kids and they’re still hungry.”
Athletes who need to fuel up for afterschool practices have voiced some of the biggest complaints about the new lunches, but Bazant Pleil said she is especially concerned about students who don’t have the financial means to pack their own lunches or bring a snack to school.
“They can’t afford to put anything in that (boxed) lunch,” Bazant Pleil said “Those kids are just going to go hungry. It’s bad.”
The new law, which was implemented beginning this school year, limits the calories in a meal and requires several “components,” such as fruits and vegetables. The meal can offer up to five components – a hamburger would count as three because of the meat and two buns – and usually includes milk and a fruit or vegetable to finish the lunch.
That healthier meal, which calls for whole grains or fresh fruit, is also more costly to the school districts. Canon-McMillan School District business manager Joni Mansmann, who oversees the food services department, said this will be the first time in the past decade the self-sustaining cafeteria will run a deficit. She expects the school lunch program will lose about $35,000 this year and is budgeting an $85,000 loss for next school year.
“To eat healthier is more expensive,” Mansmann said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than the stuff you can freeze.”
Bazant Pleil also worries she might have to dip into Avella’s general fund if more students bring their own lunches in the future.
Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Roberta DiLorenzo said the biggest change has been the number of days pizza can be offered and elimination of fried foods. She insisted there should be enough food for students to eat, but the healthier options are often unappealing and end up in the trash.
“I think the hardest thing for adults on lunch duty is to see the kids throw this food away,” DiLorenzo said.
Then again, DiLorenzo admitted that unappetizing food on the lunch tray isn’t exactly new.
“It’s not popular with the students,” DiLorenzo said. “But complaining about school lunches is just a rite of passage for kids.”
However, this is the first time DiLorenzo has heard from students that there isn’t enough food on their trays, which she attributes to less-desirable choices on the menu. The school district is currently working on a plan in the secondary schools to offer “grab-and-go” breakfasts that students can eat during their first class to give them more nutrition earlier in the day.
At the beginning of the school year, West Greene Superintendent Thelma Szarell was expecting to field a host of complaints, mostly from parents whose children would come home expressing their displeasure at what was being served. “There were some complaints, but it surely wasn’t overwhelming,” Szarell said. “Mostly, the elementary kids were complaining about the vegetables.”
After speaking with staff at the elementary schools and the middle-senior high school, she said there has been a slight decrease in the amount of food thrown away at the elementary schools but it’s been about the same or a slight increase at the high school.
Amy Keeler, food service director at West Greene, admitted there have been successes and failures with the new lunch menus. “I heard students say they were hungry – they were not getting enough food,” Keeler said. “I don’t know if it was because there were more fruits and vegetables, but that changed when the government relaxed the regulation at the first of the year pertaining to protein and whole grains. However, the calories requirements were maintained.”
She said she is still disappointed when she sees fruit and vegetables dumped in the trash.
Kim Cassidy of Nutrition Inc., the food service provider for the Central Greene and Southeastern Greene school districts, said her company is using whole grain breading on chicken patties and “that has made a difference,” she said. “The chicken is being eaten.”
“Kids like the finger foods and sandwiches and in September, our counts (numbers of students eating in the cafeteria) were down. Now, they are back up,” she said.
And just to show kids aren’t starving at West Greene, Monday’s lunch menu will be popcorn chicken salad (popcorn chicken, romaine and iceberg lettuce and cheese), grape tomatoes, oven-baked fries, garlic bread sticks, chilled peaches and milk.
There has been some discussion in Congress to overhaul the law, although that effort failed last fall and doesn’t appear to be moving forward now. Congressman Tim Murphy, a Republican whose district encompasses most of Washington and Greene counties, said the most important thing right now is that the administration is now giving schools more flexibility to make decisions.
“It’s going to take time if you’re trying to change the dietary habits of kids,” Murphy said.
And that is exactly what is happening in Washington and Canon-Mac. The school districts and their vendor, Nutrition Inc., are working to slowly change students’ attitudes toward healthy choices at younger ages by securing grant money to allow the schools to distribute healthy snacks to elementary students. School officials hope it will make the students more comfortable with new lunchroom choices in the future.
“I think it has extended their palate to things they may not have been introduced to,” DiLorenzo said. “So when they’re in the lunch line, they’ll be more likely to pick that (food) up.”
Mansmann thinks this short-term pain will improve as younger students become more accustomed to the different menus when they enter secondary schools.
“I have a positive outlook on this,” Mansmann said. “The parents and food committees also have had a positive reaction. They want the kids to eat healthier. We just have to work through the change. Eventually, it will be a part of our culture.”
DiLorenzo also is optimistic, although she insists that the healthy choices need to extend beyond the school cafeteria.
“Nutrition is a big concern for all kids in our country. We really need to up the number of fruits and vegetable kids eat,” DiLorenzo said. “However, that’s a family lifestyle. It can’t just be done in school.”
Greene County Bureau Chief Jon Stevens contributed to this story.