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New school lunch guidelines leave some kids running on empty

Fresh toppings are available to dress made-to-order sandwiches at the high school cafeteria. To comply with new USDA lunch guidelines, students are limited in the number of servings of grains and meats/meat alternatives they take. <i>Jillian Dexheimer photos</i>1 / 2
Left, RFHS sophomore, Michaela Holstein dresses her sandwich with lettuce. As part of the new lunch guidelines, maximum calories and number of servings are set for each grade level. Right, Freshman Jared Worley takes advantage of the unlimited helpings of fruit offered at the high school cafeteria by taking several apples.2 / 2

Students and teachers around the country are asking, "Where's my cookie?" and complaining via YouTube about being hungry - click below to watch it.

While students in the River Falls School District haven't taken to the halls in protest, some view the changes negatively.

High school senior, Brad Freeborn, takes issue with the new maximum calories and portion sizes allowed for school lunches.

"I am all for healthy eating, but I cannot think of one way this change has had a positive effect on me," he said.

"Portions are way down...I am a 6-foot 6-inch, 200-pound, 17-year-old boy who plays three sports -- football, basketball and track -- and I have a lot different nutritional needs than many students at RFHS," Freeborn added, "but yet, I have to spend more money in order to satisfy those needs."

Junior cross country runner Trent Powell agrees with Freeborn: "All of my friends agree that lunches are too small."

But other students, like senior Hannah Westerdahl, have not seen a huge difference.

"It's about the same -- there are different things, but I usually like the lunch," said Westerdahl.

She said the lunches tend to be fine in proportion to her needs, but she did mention that she has heard students complain about the lack of salt to season meals.

School board student representative Maura Watson says her views are rather neutral.

"I probably bring my own lunch to school more now than I did before the new school lunch guidelines were in place," said Watson. "Last year, I would often make a peanut butter sandwich at school, but since peanut butter is not available this year, I bring a lunch more."

New guidelines

It is projected that by 2030, 42% of adults will be classified as obese -- that will include those children who are currently in school. To combat the epidemic, when her husband became president, First Lady Michelle Obama launched an initiative to combat obesity.

Part of her "Let's Move" campaign included revamping the current school lunch and breakfast programs.

In January, Obama and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, announced the implementation of the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010" -- which is the first time in 30 years that changes have been made to the program.

At that time Obama said, "As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet. And when we're putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.

"When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables."

The 2012-2013 school year is the first year that schools were required to adhere to the guidelines to receive reimbursement from the USDA for lunches and breakfasts served to students.

While school lunches and breakfasts have always had minimum calorie counts, they now have maximum calorie counts as well as serving requirements for grains, meats/meat alternatives, fruits, vegetables and milk.

For example, last year students could take as many grain products as they wanted. Now students in high school are limited to no more than two ounces per day and no more than 10-12 ounces per week.

Each of the different grade levels -- K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 -- have different requirements for the number of servings, calories. and fats they are served.

Some criticisms of the new guidelines are:

  • An assumption that children have the same dietary needs
  • An assumption that all proteins are identical and can be interchanged
  • Does not allow for difference in activity level or the child's height
  • Does not account for those children who do not receive enough food at home.

In, fact legislators in other areas of the country are calling for the repeal of "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010."

Local changes

The River Falls School District has not seen the outcry that other districts have, said Food Service Director Sherry Bruggeman. She attributes that to the small steps the district has taken to meet guidelines over the last few years.

"We didn't get hit as bad," said Bruggeman, "because we had already started here."

For example, some districts have dealt with students upset about the lack of dessert that had previously come with their lunch.

Students within the River Falls district have not had a dessert option with their regular lunch for a while, said Bruggeman.

When asked about kids who require more calories, Bruggeman said parents would need to supplement the school lunches.

She mentioned that there are a la carte items, or they can take more fruits or vegetables, since there is no limit on them.

Bruggeman thinks the program is the right thing for students.

The new guidelines may be time consuming for those working in the food service department at local schools, but Bruggeman said it's for the best interests of the children.

"I think it is going well," Bruggeman said of the implementation of the new guidelines. "You are introducing children to healthy eating habits and introducing children to fruits and vegetables that they have never tried."

Students react

Bruggeman has heard a few grumblings from parents, but on the whole not a lot of negative comments.

"Anytime you make change," said Bruggeman, "some people have a harder time dealing with change."

Students have had differing views, with some hardly noticing or being affected by the change, while others seeing and feeling the difference.

Westerdahl, who plays softball in the spring, is one of those who have not minded the change.

When asked if she has noticed anything different about the lunch, Westerdahl said, "I noticed that they require a fruit and a vegetable and that they have cut back on salt and bread."

High school senior, Watson, has not seen many students struggling with the new guidelines.

"There are definitely people who would say that they aren't getting food that they like as much as they did last year, but there is enough food for everyone," said Watson.

Some athletes, whose daily calorie intake needs tend to be higher, seem to be having the hardest time with the new guidelines.

"When the new guidelines started, I did not get enough to eat at lunch," said Powell. "This made me not have enough energy for cross country practice. There was one practice in particular that I left feeling so hungry that by the time I made it home, I was dizzy."

"The new guidelines have affected me by causing me to still be hungry after eating the regular student lunch that is provided," said Freeborn. "I must now return to the lunch line and select one or more other items which I must purchase to satisfy my hunger."

Thinking beyond athletes and their dietary needs, Powell points out other students' needs.

"This affects all kids, not just athletes," he said. "For kids that get a free or reduced lunch, this might be the most or only food that they get, and I do not think that we should limit their food."

Powell suggests that a program teaching "...healthy eating habits, would be better than a one-size-fits-all program."

Watson points out that not all changes have gone over well and in fact have created waste.

"I have heard from a lot of students that food is being wasted...I understand the motivations for trying to get students to eat more fruits and vegetables and agree that as a culture our eating habits need to change," she said. "However I sometimes feel that the way people are trying to bring about this change isn't very effective."

According to Freeborn, he has not heard a positive comment about the new guidelines.

He doesn't take issue with the ladies serving lunch because they're just following the required guidelines.

But he feels, "This has definitely had a negative effect on our school."

Click here for more information on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

A copy of the May 10, 2012, USDA memo to parents is attached.

Read more on this story in the Nov. 1 print edition of the Journal.

Jillian Dexheimer
Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.
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