New USDA regulations creating school lunch challenges

Finding ways to make fruits, vegetables and “brown spaghetti” appealing to middle school students can be a challenge for anyone, but that’s the task Watertown-Mayer food service officials and school districts around the country are facing this fall as they take steps to meet new federal requirements for school lunches.

The new USDA regulations emphasize more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and fewer carbohydrates and high-calorie, fatty foods. The new standards also include calorie limits, and have drawn resistance from students and even parents in many districts. In some districts, such as Rockford, students have even started informal boycotts of school lunches.

The response hasn’t been that drastic in Watertown-Mayer schools, although Taher’s Scott Papke, the district manager for Watertown-Mayer’s food service vendor, said school lunches are down 50 percent this year in the middle school. School officials said students at the elementary school have largely embraced the changes, and high school students seem to be making the adjustments, but the middle school has continued to show some resistance.

The most common complaint? “I’m still hungry.”

“We took pictures in spring — when we found out this was going to happen — of what a normal kid’s tray should look like,” Papke said. “It’s just loaded with food. But yet the complaints are that the kids are starving. They don’t want to fill up on fruits and vegetables, and that’s what the new regulations are pushing.”

The biggest obstacle districts have faced in the early stages of the new regulations is a calorie limit on school lunches. While schools used to face only a calorie minimum, now the meals must fit within a certain calorie range based on grade levels. The range for elementary school students is 550-650 calories, while the numbers increase to 600-700 calories at the middle school and 750-850 at the high school. One of the initial criticisms is that the elementary school and middle school ranges are nearly identical, meaning an eighth-grade football player is eating roughly the same size lunch as a kindergartner.

The USDA’s goal, however, is to cut the amount of calories, but not the amount of food. Theoretically, the new, larger vegetable and fruit portions, which are lower in calories and have replaced fattier foods, should still leave students feeling just as full as before, but with fewer calories. But that assumes students actually eat their fruits and vegetables.

Watertown-Mayer superintendent Dave Marlette said students at the elementary school haven’t seemed fazed by the changes, and actually seem to enjoy the salad bar. Students at the high school are also beginning to make the necessary changes. But at the middle school level, where children are often the pickiest eaters, it has been more of a challenge to get students to embrace the new meals.

“I would say 80 percent of high schoolers are eating it,” food service director Mary Miller said of the now required fruit or vegetable at each meal. “But I would say for 80 percent of the middle schoolers, it’s going in the garbage.”

With the federal regulations unlikely to be loosened any time soon, local officials are focusing instead on embracing the changes and finding ways to get students to do the same. The effort now is to show students and families that the USDA standards are not meant to punish students or leave them hungry. Rather, the regulations are designed to benefit the students and promote a healthy diet and lifestyle.

“It’s about healthy living for kids — that’s what it’s all about,” Marlette said. “You can’t argue with that. That’s a great goal.”

The most noticeable change is the requirement that students now have at least a half cup of fruits or vegetables daily, with further regulations dictating how much of each type and color of vegetable must be served to students over the course of a week. Also, more than 50 percent of grains must now be whole grains, resulting in the “brown” spaghetti and tortillas that some students have been reluctant to eat. There also are new limits on the total amounts of meat and grain portions that can be served, and milk offerings have been restricted to 1 percent or fat free.

“The positive part is now they get more fruits and vegetables, and we’re trying to teach them to eat healthier,” Miller said.

Furthermore, if students are still hungry, they are allowed to return for more food, although those items are charged ala carte. That option for students hasn’t changed from past years.

Marlette also invited any parents who may be concerned about the new lunch menus to come in and have lunch with their children. He added that he believes resistant students will eventually begin to accept the changes as they become more accustomed to them. One of the biggest challenges is that many families, facing increasingly busy schedules during the week, don’t eat as healthy at home, so the sudden change at school can come as a bit of a shock.

“It’s just an adjustment period,” he said. “I think the federal government, if they would have eased into it a little, I don’t think there would have been all the problems. Do you just tip-toe in and make the changes and let it grow, or do you dunk it? Well, they kind of dunked it, and it’s causing some growing pains.

“Nobody can fault what they’re trying to do. It’s just the way they went about it was maybe a little bit aggressive.”