WASHINGTON — Two years in, schools are having mixed success putting new healthier school lunch rules in place.
Some report that students are excited about a variety of healthier options and have barely noticed the changes. Others say some kids throw fruits and vegetables away and balk at whole grains.
The requirements are part of a government effort to make school lunches and breakfasts healthier. Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new standards have been phased in over the last two school years, with more changes coming in 2014.
Some schools are asking Congress and the Agriculture Department to roll back some of the requirements. Their main concerns: finding enough whole grain-rich foods that kids like, lowering sodium levels and keeping fruits and vegetables out of the trash.
Not all schools must follow the requirements, but if they don’t, they won’t receive government reimbursements that partially pay for free and low-cost lunches for low-income kids.
In Virginia’s Alexandria City Public Schools, school nutrition director Becky Domokos-Bays says students have adapted to whole grain rolls and pizza crusts, but have so far rejected whole grain pastas. Starting next school year, pasta and other grain products in schools will have to be whole-grain-rich, or more than half whole grain.
Here’s how five other school districts are doing:
OHIO: Cincinnati Public Schools
Jessica Shelly, food service director at Cincinnati’s urban public schools, says she started serving healthier foods in her lunchrooms years before the government standards were required, so it has been easier for kids to adjust.
She has seen increased participation by enthusiastically highlighting the new menus with kids. She says salad bars with lots of variety — pickle slices, banana peppers, different kinds of beans, for example — give kids healthy options and also the sense that they are creating their own meals.
And as the standards require reduced sodium, she set up a “spice bar” with seasonings like lemon pepper, garlic herb and cumin to make foods more flavorful.
GEORGIA: Ware County School System
In rural Southeast Georgia, Stephanie Taylor, director of school nutrition for the Ware County School System, says she doesn’t have much of a selection from food service vendors. She has had a hard time finding tasty whole-grain-rich biscuits and grits, and would like to occasionally serve the white flour versions. Starting this fall, she won’t be able to do that.
Taylor agrees that school lunches needed improvement and says kids have been more accepting as industry has formulated better-tasting healthy foods.
She worries, however, that negative publicity about the revised menus may make kids less likely to try them. Unhealthy eating patterns outside of school make her job harder as well.
“If kids aren’t eating this way at home, how can we force them to eat like this in school?” she asks.
NEW MEXICO: Roswell Independent School District
Lyman Graham, director of student nutrition for Roswell and two other New Mexico school districts, says one of the biggest problems has been finding whole-grain-rich tortillas that kids will eat. Like Taylor in rural Georgia, he doesn’t have a lot of vendors to choose from, and he says the whole wheat tortillas he can get are slimy and don’t hold up. So he’s had to take popular breakfast burritos and wraps off his menus.
He says he’s had more luck with whole wheat bread, which the kids haven’t complained about as much.
KANSAS: Wallace County Schools
The tiny Wallace County school district made headlines in 2012 when students and teachers put together a video called “We Are Hungry” — set to the tune of the popular song “We Are Young” by the group Fun. — in which kids pretended to pass out from hunger because of the new standards.
The students’ main concern was maximum requirements on proteins and grains. After hearing the same complaint from many schools across the country, USDA scrapped those requirements.
Teacher Linda O’Connor, who helped produce the video, says her district has a high percentage of athletes and that was part of the reason kids were so hungry. She says she still hears some complaints, but kids are generally less hungry since the standards were relaxed.
NEW JERSEY: West New York School District
Sal Valenza, food service director for West New York, says he got students involved early, hosting a healthier food fair so they could sample new items when the district put in a healthier school lunch menu more than five years ago.
The school also has what he calls a “harvest bar,” with locally-grown fruits and vegetables, and the district has taken chips out of elementary schools.
He says he disagrees with efforts to roll some of the standards back.
“It’s not a good message to send,” he said. “It’s like telling the kids we don’t value your health. As adults, we fear change more than they do.”