New healthy lunch rule meets pushback in Utah schools
Watermelon, strawberries and pomegranates grace Josiah Randolph's summertime plate
For greens, he chooses brussels sprouts because "I think they look kinda cool," said Josiah, a Santaquin fifth-grader who likes sketching with colored pencils.
Josiah and students nationwide are gearing up for year two of the school lunch overhaul required by the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010. They must now top their lunch trays with more fresh choices: students cannot clear the checkout line without taking a fruit or veggie cup.
The law also trimmed down the portion sizes of meats and grains, shrinking burgers, hoagies and other popular choices.
The changes cost Utah districts in two ways first to buy the healthier fare and deal with more waste, then in lost customers as students opted to pack lunch or pick it up elsewhere.
Buying more produce lowered bottom lines of school districts across Utah, said Luann Elliott, the state child nutrition programs director. But the hit is necessary, she said. "There has to be a place where kids learn what a healthy option looks like."
Still hungry • The mandates are an important step toward good habits, nutrition professionals say, and it takes to transform attitudes from "yuck" to "yum."
But in the first go-around, much of the fresh stuff went onto plates and into the garbage.
Meanwhile, students nationwide complained of afternoon stomach grumbles, citing smaller burgers and halved buns, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The first version of last year's revamped lunches simply didn't fill up older students with bigger frames, especially athletes, said Kelly Orton, nutrition director at Salt Lake City schools. "We have one size that does not fit all."
USDA officials relented in January, temporarily lifting limits on grains and proteins. Students were once again allowed to take multiple rolls instead of just one, and cheeseburgers went back on some menus. It's not yet official, but USDA officials now say the change will be permanent.
Students who avoid the fruits and vegetables don't have a real shot at feeling full because they miss out on fiber, points out Sara Harcourt, a Salt Lake City dietitian who plans menus for Head Start programs in Utah.
Lunch should fuel students through the school day, but athletes should plan to nosh on after-school snacks to power through practice and games, Harcourt said.
Unhappy customers • At Jordan School District, raspberries and other produce from local farms have appeared in the cafeteria for the past few years. But "these regulations came down more stringent than we would've ever guessed," said Jana Cruz, the district nutrition director.
Hoagie buns diminished to hot-dog size, dragging down sales of sandwiches, one of the most popular choices. Students balked at sweet potato fries in place of starchy white ones.
The slice of students buying lunch shrank ten percent in Jordan schools and the district went over its meal budget.
Ogden schools also saw a four percent decrease in students buying lunch, about twice the size of previous dips, said nutrition administrator Ken Crawford. Some Salt Lake City students also opted out of school lunch last year, lowering school returns.
In Salt Lake City schools, fresh fruits and vegetables used to make up about 11 percent of the district's food budget. It's now just under 30 percent.
For the most part, Salt Lake City students didn't turn back to school lunch once old favorites returned to the menu, Orton said. It means, he said, that the supposed investment in student health went down the garbage disposal.
The "have to" element miffs students, who are more willing to try it as an optional snack, nutrition directors said. And parents note the scene plays out at kitchen tables nationwide.
"New foods are always hard, whether it's a fruit or a new topping on pizza," Harcourt said.
Through the greatest hurdles? • At Provo schools, fresh pineapple slices now fly off the counter, said nutrition director Jenilee McComb. "Did they love it at first? No."
Pretty foods at the height of their season crunchy, juicy, bright sell well, McComb said. Fresh peaches disappear. Predictably, brittle oranges and bruised apples stay put.
Stocking the buffet with seasonal produce means more planning but also cheaper prices. Students get squash in the fall and pomegranates in December. "I love seeing all these whole fruits and vegetables," said Ashley Cloward, who oversees meals at Timpanogos Elementary. It's worth "peeling carrots, not just opening bags."
Before the new mandates, districts had already begun swapping out iceberg lettuce, white bread and whole milk. Leafy greens and whole grain rolls have caught on, and students now chase them down with nonfat milk.
"I think we are through the greatest hurdles," Cruz said.
But there are limits, she added. Take jicama, a mild Mexican root vegetable served in julienne slices to mimic french fries. "They just won't have it."
Shantil Randolph, Josiah's mom and a personal trainer, likes the changes. But she wants a ban on sugary chocolate milk and more information for families about healthy eating. For example, she said, schools could explain that "celery's like a broom for your stomach."
When she was growing up, "my dad would press" healthy eating, she said, "and it was so irritating. But what you hear sticks with you."
Family support is important, added Orton from Salt Lake City schools. "It's hard when we're giving the good stuff here and they've got the Cheetos and the pop at home."
Fernanda Duron, an incoming eighth-grader at Provo's Dixon Middle School, says for her, the healthy message resonates. She opts for mangoes, tangerines and apples when she wants a sweet treat.
"I don't get it 'cause I have to get it," Duron said. "I get it 'cause I want it." But every once in a while, she added, ice cream wouldn't hurt.
Emmanuel Duron, a third-grader at Timpanogos Elementary, is hoping fish sticks will appear on the menu. He doesn't touch the whole wheat bread his sister likes.
"Have you tried it?" she asked him in July.
Said Emmanuel: "I just leave it."
New school menus
Under tougher federal nutrition standards, the price tag for lunch went up $1.35, to $2.00, in Salt Lake City schools. In Provo schools, lunch went up by a quarter. Jordan District prices stayed the same.
Among the menu changes:
Students must take a half-cup of fruits or vegetables, such as a small sliced apple or cucumber and carrot sticks. Both fruits and vegetables must show up on the lunch line. Fresh, frozen or canned are all OK, but not with added ingredients.
Elementary students get a little over an ounce of grains each day. That's a baseball sized scoop of cooked pasta. Middle and high school students get about 2 ounces each day, or 2 palm-sized bread slices.
At least half the grains in bread must be whole grains.
Flavored milks, such as chocolate and strawberry, must be fat-free. Unflavored milk must be low-fat.
Sodium allowances are being reduced in stages.
Non-meat products, such as beans, tofu, nuts and fish, must be available more often.
Meals for K-5 students contain 550 to 650 calories. Grades 6 to 8 receive 600 to 700 calories. High school students receive 750 to 850 calories.
The health of Utah kids
In 2010, more than 10 percent of Utah high school students were overweight, and over 6 percent were obese.
Almost nine in ten teenagers ate fewer than three vegetables per day.
And seven in ten teens ate fruit less than twice a day.
Source: US Census Bureau.