Twin Cities: A new food fight brewing over school lunch requirements?

/ 3 November 2012 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, October 3, 2012 – The battle over improving the nutrition of school lunches might be over, but the war to reduce childhood obesity by getting kids to eat better rages on.

In school lunchrooms across the Twin Cities, new federal nutrition standards have cut the fat, shrunk portions and added fruits and vegetables.

The changes are in response to the epidemic of childhood obesity. A third of young people are now either overweight or obese, according to federal data, and the new lunches are designed to encourage healthier eating habits in the 32 million students who eat school lunches.

Many older students aren’t fans of the new food.

School-lunch sales are down as much as 10 percent in some cafeterias across the east metro, district records show. Most of that decline comes from high schools, with elementary- and middle-school sales remaining flat.

Take Apple Valley High School, where junior Maddi Engel says students have considered boycotting the new meals because they are tasteless, too small and too costly.

“It’s not enough, it’s not good flavor and it’s not good quality,” she said, noting that more and more students are buying additional a la cart items or choosing to pack a lunch.

Athletes have been particularly critical because they don’t get enough fuel before practices, senior Matt DuBois said.

“The meals were pretty much split in half,” he said. “… What happened?”

These students’ complaints are common at high schools nationwide. Students have staged a boycott in Wisconsin, and students in Kansas created a spoof music video called “We Are Hungry” that went viral.

Apple Valley students were so upset that Engel, DuBois and classmate Colleen Poss decided to produce a segment about the new meal standards for their broadcasting class. The piece, which features students expressing their disdain of the new lunches, appeared on their news show “EaglEye.”

They also approached Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board member Rob Duchscher, who expressed concern over the changes during a board meeting earlier this year.

The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 updated nutrition standards, mandating things such as more whole grains and fruits and vegetables, while limiting fat, sodium and calories. Districts must meet the guidelines to receive federal money for their lunch programs.

“If we deviate, we lose the funding. It would be hard to put on a lunch program without it,” Duchscher said. “No one wants overweight children, I get that, but on the flip side, one size doesn’t fit all.”

Duchscher says board members have asked Wendy Knight, food service coordinator, to explore ways to appease students’ appetites and make the new meals more palatable.

School food service workers long have had to balance the need for healthy meals with students’ tastes, Knight said. Since the new federal standards were put in place, that balance has become more difficult.

“It’s a very tight line we have to walk,” Knight said. “We need to find food kids will like. It might be nutritious, but until we get it into the kids, it’s nothing.”

The food served to students has improved in recent years, but the latest changes might be the most noticeable, Knight said. For the first time, there is an 850-calorie cap, which makes it harder to satisfy appetites of active kids.

“School lunch was never designed to feed an athlete,” she said. “It is one-third of a normal student’s daily calories. But there is no normal student.”

Knight says most of the menu items and recipes the district serves haven’t changed much. Portions are smaller, and some food-pairing changed to meet the new rules.

For instance, students no longer get garlic toast with their pasta. Instead, the district offers fruits and vegetables, said Janeen Peterson, a district dietitian who develops the menus for the high schools. After the change, pasta sales dropped.

“The cap on breads and meats makes it hard for a menu planner,” Peterson said.

Knight and Peterson support the changes to school lunches, but they say it will take time to win over students. They’re trying to keep the message positive.

“It’s a huge change. You can’t just put it in front of them and say, ‘Eat it,’ ” Peterson said.

Susan Richardson, food service director in Roseville Area Schools, also has been finding ways to get students to eat healthier school lunches for more than a decade. Her work now has expanded to White Bear Lake schools as part of a shared-services agreement.

Richardson agreed that getting kids to eat better doesn’t happen overnight.

“We started salad bars at our elementary schools years ago,” she said. “Now, kids at the high school demand fresh fruits and veggies. It has to build up over time.”

Richardson recently enlisted the help of chef Marshall O’Brien, who works as a school lunch food consultant, to help her expand the menus at her district’s schools. Involving students in menu decisions is important to sales, she said.

Last week, O’Brien had Little Canada Elementary students “taste test” a dish of broccoli and cauliflower covered in Parmesan cheese. They voted by putting their serving cups in buckets that had either a smile or a frown.

The positive reaction was no surprise to O’Brien.

If encouraged, he says, students will prefer healthier food.

“Historically, kids were overfed and undernourished,” O’Brien said. “Younger kids don’t know any better. If they have the opportunity to try something healthy, they will.”

O’Brien sees his taste tests as “catalysts of curiosity” that expose students to different foods.

He admits that some kids are harder to win over than others, and that younger students are more open to new foods than older students.

Little Canada second-grader Conner Wurl had a typical reaction to chef O’Brien’s broccoli dish. He was on the fence.

“I kind of like it at first, but after it’s in your mouth for a while, it tastes bad,” Conner said. “I think, maybe, I might try it again.”

Rosemount schools also are dabbling in things such as student taste tests and farm fresh meals, and the Apple Valley students say they would welcome the chance to provide input. They believe their video caught the attention of district officials.

“It would be good if they got our feedback and knew what students liked,” DuBois said.

Nevertheless, Knight and Peterson say the biggest challenge healthy school lunches face are the meals students eat outside of school, which are much different.

“This food is healthy, and it’s good for you,” Knight said. “It is about teaching students what normal portion sizes are, and they’re not super-sized.”