Schools, families adjust to healthier school lunches

Many students and parents have reacted strongly to National School Lunch Program updates introduced this year that mandate calorie limits and more fruits and vegetables, saying the meals are unappealing or leave kids hungry.

The new guidelines are broad and affect all Ohio school cafeterias and students who purchase lunches. Some say the changes go too far, while others argue they are necessary for student health.

Madelyn Cox, a sophomore at Lakota West High School, said there are notable improvements in the school lunches this year. She said the variety in food options is greater, but there’s still room to grow. Cox said since she doesn’t like vegetables, she wishes there was a better mix of fruit.

“I’ll have a different meal every day,” Cox said of chicken wraps or the daily special. “It’s so much more healthier. I saw someone eating squash and hummus; that was never an option before.”

The changes were part of reauthorizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Programs — including the National School Lunch Program — with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Efforts for the legislation were led by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign meant to encourage activity and decrease childhood obesity, which increased nationally from 7 percent for kids aged 6 to 11 in 1980 to 20 percent in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Ohio, 15 percent of high school students were obese in 2011.

Officials say they hope the changes help children stay healthy now and also teach better habits for the future. They also warn that the lunch program meals are meant to be only part of a child’s eating plan for the day.

Danielle Laffoon, registered dietitian at West Chester Hospital, said the new federal nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs are “a step in the right direction.”

But Laffoon said it remains crucial for school districts to complement the new nutrition standards inside the classroom as well — such as teachers in health class sharing the importance of portion control, what a healthy weight is by age, and appropriate ways to lose weight.

“With the obesity problem, it’s good to teach kids to eat healthy in school,” Laffoon said, especially when many parents aren’t eating healthy.

Laffoon said it’s becoming more common for younger adults in their early 20s to be diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension — high blood pressure. Laffoon said hopefully overtime the prevalence of health issues will decline as more schools begin teaching healthy habits at a young age.

What’s for lunch?

Before the new standards, there were no calorie limits on meals, and one-half to three-fourths of a cup or any mix of fruits or vegetables was allowed. Beginning this school year, there are per-meal calorie requirements depending on grades, ranging from a minimum of 350 calories in kindergarten to maximum of 850 calories in 12th grade. Meals must include one-half of a cup to 1 cup of fruits and three-fourths of a cup to 1 cup of vegetables.

There are separate standards for meats, grains, whole grains, milk, sodium and fat.

Schools must meet those standards to be reimbursed by the federal government, with rates ranging from $2.46 to $3.09 per meal, depending on its contents. In fiscal year 2011, the USDA paid more than $311 million in reimbursements to Ohio schools for the National School Lunch Program, part of $10.1 billion paid out nationally.

Chris Burkhardt, director of child nutrition for Lakota Local Schools, said having a different calorie limit per grade has caused the district to change its recipes and portion sizes. Since the school year began, Burkhardt said Lakota has made more than 100 changes to its menus in order to meet the requirements of the “unfunded mandate.”

Burkhardt said for example, a pizza that would’ve been cut into eight slices before now yields 10 slices due to bread components per slice. Conversely, fruit and vegetable portions have increased because the calories counts are so low.

Laffoon said there are many potential health benefits within the nutritional standards. She said by incorporating whole grains students will receive more fiber and protein, and larger portions of fruits and vegetables translates to more vitamins and minerals.

“For growing bodies, especially athletes, milk keeps bones strong,” Laffoon said, suggesting students opt for 1 percent or skim. “You don’t need the added fat and calories,” from 2 percent or whole milk.

On the preparation side, Laffoon said cafeteria staff should prepare food in as healthy a way possible, such as grilling or baking a meat item rather than frying. She said school districts should be mindful when using canned fruits and vegetables, to purchase fruits canned in their own juices — rather than heavy syrup — and vegetables canned with no salt added.

Burkhardt said Lakota has reduced its sodium levels significantly, and hasn’t offered salt shakers for a couple of years. He said that’s one of the biggest complaints from students — some who even bring their own salt packets.

Mixed reviews

Some parents expressed concern about their children getting enough food to last through the day, particularly if they take part in after-school activities.

Victoria Pendery, a mother of two current Lakota students, said she’s pleased with the variety of options students now have at their disposal in the lunchroom. Pendery said one of her children, a senior at Lakota West, is a football player and therefore tries to eat healthier by picking more fruits.

“Not all kids will choose to eat healthy, but I’m glad they have the option,” Pendery said.

Pendery said the cafeteria has more signage now telling students the required food items they need to consume. She said as students mature and reach high school they begin to focus more on eating healthy.

“I’m a more visual person and I think a lot of kids if they see that they need more will opt to take it,” Pendery said.

Cynthia Colegrove, the parent of a third-grade student at Fairfield West Elementary School, said her son Blake has noticed a change in the taste of some food items. Blake Colegrove said the macaroni and cheese and green beans just “don’t taste the same.”

“I think the government should stay out of it and let people eat what tastes good,” Cynthia Colegrove said. “You can be healthy and still get good food … some of these kids, it’s the only meal they get all day long, and it should be something that tastes good, that sticks to the ribs.”

Laura Weathers, cafeteria manager at Fairfield West, said the new requirements are well-intended but have been hard to get accustomed to.

“The only thing that’s really different, for the elementaries up to sixth grade, is that they must take a fruit or a vegetable now … to make sure they have a more balanced diet,” Weathers said. “If we start them at this age, by the time we get to middle school, they’re a little bit more receptive.”

Most of the complaints tend to come from older kids, Weathers said.

“You’re feeding football players with big appetites; fruits and vegetables are just not going to fill them up,” Weathers said.

Burkhardt said he often hears the comment that students are “starving” by the time school ends. He said that’s often because students aren’t starting their day with the needed 500 calories from breakfast.

“A lot of students don’t eat breakfast and rely strictly on the lunch calories,” Burkhardt said. “Breakfast is part of a well-rounded diet; it’s not just all about lunch.”

At Lakota schools, Burkhardt said the staff have tried to introduce new items such as hummus, whipped sweet potato and sweet potato french fries, and pumpkin crunch (mashed pumpkin with crushed graham cracker).

“(People) get a little apprehensive to try something that seems weird and different,” Laffoon said. “But most people are pleasantly surprised and end up liking the new, healthy product if prepared well.”