Lunch concerns on the plate in USD 457
By RACHAEL GRAY
School lunches have come under scrutiny lately in the national news, and according to students at Garden City High School, the local cafeteria has not been spared.
Much of the flack comes from healthier lunch guidelines, smaller portions and a push for more fruits and vegetables under the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010
Under the act, meals at the kindergarten through fifth-grade level must stay between 550 and 650 calories, and between 750 and 850 calories at the high school.
Tracy Johnson, USD 457 director of food services, said the amount of calories on the school lunch plates are about the same as they were before the initiative. What has changed is the fat and sodium content, and the mandatory taking of fruits and vegetables.
Johnson said that although food costs have gone up due to the initiative, some of the change is good.
"We've taken out some of the greasier foods, including the fried pork patty, fried chicken patty and chicken fried steak," she said.
The act requires that next school year, the district serve one-half cup of dark green vegetables per week, three-fourths to one-and-a-fourth cups per week of red and orange vegetables, one-half cup of beans or peas, one-half cup of starchy vegetables per week and a cup of additional vegetables per week.
One concern students and parents are having is whether student-athletes are getting enough calories during lunch.
Roberto Abundis, 16, a sophomore who does weightlifting and is out for football, said he's hungry before practice. But he said he eats more in the mornings and likes the school's breakfast.
"The breakfast is really good," he said.
On Friday, he ate a hamburger for lunch.
Gaby Molina, 17, a senior, said the hamburgers and chicken sandwiches are all right.
"The chicken sandwich is good," she said.
Bryttany Landon, 16, a junior, is in season for tennis. She didn't eat the school lunch on Friday.
"I don't usually eat the lunches. I bring crackers or snacks to class and eat those all day and eat a lot in the evening. I'm hungry, but I eat a lot at home," she said.
Landon said she is underwhelmed by the food and selections at school. "I just think at the brand new, huge high school, we were expecting it to be a little bit better," she said.
Johnson said while it's true high school athletes need more calorie intake because of their energy expenditure, she said it doesn't need to be all at lunch.
She said everyone's caloric needs are different. She also said school lunches are coming under attention of the media because smaller schools are used to offering students second helpings.
At GCHS, it's not affordable to offer each student seconds.
"But they can buy extras off the cart for $1," she said.
Johnson said she takes pride in following school lunch rules, even if she doesn't agree with all of them.
"We stay within the guidelines. We always have. The schools that weren't are the ones needing to make the biggest changes," she said.
Johnson said she's encouraging cooks to be creative in serving fruits and vegetables to students, to make them appealing and tasty.
Some of the cooks in the district are Hispanic, and use fusion to create different tastes.
"They've been doing great things like adding chili powder to jicama and mango. The kids really seem to like that," she said.
And contrary to popular belief, the students are eating their fruits and vegetables, even at the lower level.
Johnson said plate waste hasn't been more than usual, and 75 percent of students are eating school lunches. During lunchtime, students are crowded around the fruits and vegetables.
"They are making healthy choices, so that's good," she said.
Johnson said that while the federal guidelines are a challenge, and she advocates for limited regulation, exposing students to more fruits and vegetables can be good.
Johnson said that in the district, 43 percent of students kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight. Twenty-five percent of students are obese.
But are school lunches contributing to that?
"Absolutely not," she said.
Johnson said it's what is happening before and after school, as well as on the weekends. She attributed sedentary lifestyles to the high rates.
That's a point GCHS senior Lindy Bilberry brings up to argue for larger portions and more protein in school meals.
Bilberry has guest-blogged for schoollunchessuck.blogspot.com.
She agrees sedentary lifestyles attribute much to the obesity rate.
"I don't think it's food. I think it's lack of activity," she said.
But for some GCHS students, the one meal they eat at school may be the only one they eat all day. She said she understands the national push to get more students active.
"But let's make sure we also feed them enough calories so they can," she said.
She also said leaving kids hungry during the day may lead to poorer food choices once the students leave school.
Bilberry said it's not necessarily the quantity, but the quality of food that is served.
And for many, an energy-filled, useful diet includes meat.
Johnson said the guidelines used to include a minimum requirement of meat/meat alternatives and bread/bread alternatives. But there was no maximum amount.
Now, the school has to stay within weekly ranges.
For kindergarten through fifth grade, that's 8 to 10 ounces, 9 to 10 for sixth through eight grades and 10 to 12 ounces for high schoolers.
For bread and grains, the guidelines are 8 to 9 ounces for kindergarten through fifth-graders, 8 to 10 ounces for sixth- through eighth-graders and 10 to 12 ounces for high schoolers.
"I think the biggest tragedy is the lack of meat — the protein limit," Bilberry said.
"We're meat eaters here. That's what builds muscle and helps you focus throughout the day," she said.
Bilberry said she plans to write local and state representatives, who she hopes will relay the message to the federal government.
"I think the people making the laws need to be eating what we're eating if they're making that decision for us," she said.
Linda O'Connor, a Wallace County High School English teacher who wrote lyrics for the "We Are Hungry" YouTube video posted in early September, said school meals need more protein and carbohydrates.
Set to the music from "We are Young," the video she called "whimsical and educational" shows students falling asleep in class and collapsing during sports practices.
"The video is just to show these kids are hungry and not getting enough fuel for their day," O'Connor said.
She said there isn't enough of the right stuff in their school meals since new federal guidelines limiting high school meals to 850 calories were implemented this fall.
As of Friday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 630,000 times. Its popularity has prompted dozens of interview requests.
O'Connor said that in its report Wednesday morning, NBC's "Today Show" suggested that students are not getting enough to eat, and that's a misinterpretation.
Quantity isn't the problem, O'Connor said, but rather the meals don't include enough protein and carbohydrates.
"I guess my biggest problem is when media consult the U.S. government for guidelines, when (the government) set the guidelines," she said. "My inbox is full of medical personnel saying there is a problem."