If they were doing the grading, some Capital Region students would give the new lunches a mark of incomplete.
Schools are receiving complaints that the new, healthier lunches required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 are not filling.
“I used to be able to give them two hot dogs for lunch because there was no limit,” said Marcy Vonmaucher, food service director for the Schalmont Central School District. “Now I can only give them one.”
Vonmaucher said students who want more food can buy an additional lunch a la carte, and many are. A la carte item sales are up about 5 percent and additional meals are up 8 percent.
The new federal rules require school districts to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, offer only lower-fat milk and limit serving sizes and the amount of proteins and grains in meals.
Mohonasen Central School District students selecting pizza sticks this week had to choose something from the lunch line’s cornucopia of apples, bananas, fresh spinach and grape tomatoes. Calories are capped, too.
“Now they’re kind of forcing all the students to get the vegetables and fruit with their lunch, and they took out chicken nuggets this year, which I’m not too happy about,” said Chris Cimino, a senior at Mohonasen High School.
“I always got the extra apple and fruit and veggies and all that,” said Anthony Sicilia, a senior at Mohonasen, who nonetheless was eating a Subway sub for lunch. “But I think it’s good because it actually forces kids to eat healthy.”
Most students interviewed seemed to accept the new lunch rules, reactions in line with what federal officials say they’re hearing elsewhere.
Kim Gagnon, food service director in the Mohonasen district, said while students generally have been receptive to the fruits and vegetables, “we have noticed that kids are throwing it out or giving it to friends, leaving it on counters, so we haven’t quite gotten there yet.”
Vonmaucher of Schalmont said most of the students appear to be taking the fruits and vegetables. “My garbage cans are not as heavy I thought they would be,” she said.
Vonmaucher already had been incorporating the changes over the past three years, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to the kids. She hasn’t noticed much of a decline in the number of people taking lunch.
She said she has tried to make subtle changes, for example, working with a supplier to change the slices of bread from having 1.3 ounces of grain to 0.8 ounces.
“It looks the same to the kids. They don’t see the difference in it because the size is the same, but it falls within the size of our guidelines,” she said.
She said she believes the changes will be beneficial in the long run. But she hoped the federal government would revisit the requirements, which she called drastic.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district officials are reporting similar findings. The number of students buying a la carte items is up, and some middle-school and high-school students are complaining that the size of the entrees is now too small, said Food Service Director Nicky Boehm through a school spokesperson.
More students are bringing their own lunches from home. Boehm said that it is too early to tell the effect of the new rule since there have only been seven days of classes.
Schools are having mixed results with their efforts to serve more fruits and vegetables, according to Boehm. She said some of the new rules aren’t realistic. For example, she would have to serve four kiwis per high school student to qualify as providing a serving of fruit for that age student.
Many students have been exposed to a limited number of vegetables, so they may hesitate to eat things like sweet potatoes at school.
“It would help schools if parents made an effort to introduce their children to a wide variety of vegetables,” she said.
Boehm said schools have to get creative to meet the new requirements. She created a “Meatless Monday” with a vegetarian entree. This past Monday it was black bean quesadillas, which students seemed to like. Beans can count as a protein or a vegetable, so that frees up more ounces of meat that can be used on the other four days.
Nationwide, reactions in schools so far this fall have been positive, according to Kevin Concannon, the USDA’s undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
Still, not all kids can stomach the healthier meals.
In Clinton, Miss., the elementary-school students served flatbread roast beef sandwiches with grated cheese ate most of the meat but left large chunks of whole-wheat pita bread. Most plums were gnawed to the pits, and several salads were half-eaten.
“I liked the meat but not this,” fifth-grader Kenmari Williams said, pointing to his pita. “Every time you eat it, you get something white on your hands.”
“I was just trying to eat it so I wouldn’t be hungry later on,” Marecas Wilson said of his pita sandwich. However, the fifth-grader judged his pita “nasty,” though he conceded that “the plum was very good.”
One thornier complaint is that the new lunches are too little for active teens now that the calorie range for high school lunches is 750 to 850 calories. Rachelle Chinn, a freshman from Clarence, Mo., who plays softball, said school lunches are now so slight it once left her with a headache.
“The fruits and vegetables are good at first, but once they wear off, I get hungry,” she said. “It’s just not enough to get me through the day.”
Her mom, Chris Chinn, now packs her protein-heavy snacks like peanut butter crackers and granola bars. Chinn, a critic of what she calls the “one size fits all” standards, said many athletes aren’t getting enough to eat.
Similarly, Katie Pinke in Wishek, N.D., gave up on school lunches for her strapping freshman son Hunter and packs him meaty sandwiches.
Hunter is a 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound football player who, based on his size and active lifestyle, needs more than 4,700 calories daily to maintain his weight. He said lunches topping out at 850 calories aren’t enough.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that people say how much we get to eat when there are a lot of kids that are big,” Hunter said. “When we can’t have our meat and bread, for a guy especially, it’s not fun.”
Concannon noted that the calorie ranges are adjusted for age, increasing as students move from elementary to middle to high school. If some children need more, Concannon said, schools have the option of offering an afternoon snack or parents can send snacks from home.
“If you look at colleges in the United States, if you’ve ever looked at the tables where they’re feeding just the football players, good God … if you emulated that, we’d all be wearing size 48 suits by our 20s,” he said. “You have to use common sense.”
And just weeks into the school year, it’s probably too early for final grades. In Mississippi, Keba Laird, child nutrition supervisor for the Clinton district, said she is phasing in the nutritional changes to help children grow accustomed to eating healthier.
“We don’t want a revolt on our hands,” she said. “We want them to enjoy eating with us.”