Food fight in the school lunchroom

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA and HERON MARQUEZ , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 6:15 AM

Students don't like to be told what to eat and say portions are too small. Lunch staffers seek patience and buy-in to the goal of healthier kids.

They may be good for you, but some students are having a tough time swallowing the new, healthier school lunches.

Across the United States, students are protesting new federal guidelines that have school lunches packing more fruits and vegetables, fewer carbohydrates and less meat.

About 120 students at Jordan Middle School boycotted the lunch program to show their distaste, as did students in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Michigan.

A spoof music video, "We Are Hungry," written by a Kansas English teacher and performed by high school students, scored nearly a million hits on YouTube.

"The federal government is trying to solve a problem that every kid doesn't have," said Jacob Taxdahl, an eighth-grade football player at Jordan Middle School who started the three-day boycott via a Facebook page. "They're trying to solve obesity in America, but not every kid is obese."

The reaction has some schools re-evaluating their programs, some politicians demanding a repeal of the standards and parents trying to figure out whether to affirm their kids' complaints or tell them just to eat their vegetables.

The food guidelines are designed to increase the nutrients in federally subsidized school lunches and to reduce the longterm health impact of the obesity that already affects about a third of American schoolchildren.

From the beginning, there was concern that students -- particularly student athletes -- wouldn't get enough to eat, and that other kids might not eat the healthier food and increase the cafeteria waste. Supporters of the guidelines said students will get used to their new diet, and if they'll eat what is offered, they can get as many or more calories than they would have gotten in last year's lunches.

Schools plead for patience

School nutrition directors said they initially had a volley of e-mails and calls from concerned parents, but those largely have subsided.

But the Jordan boycott sure got Food Service Director Cheryl Schmieg's attention. Participation in the lunch program for September was down 17 percent compared to last year.

She said the boycott -- and some students' continuing resistance -- could create a shortfall in the lunch program's budget.

"If this keeps up ... we could end up getting money from the school budget," she said.

Elsewhere, reaction has been more mixed. School lunch participation also is down about 5 percent in Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley schools, but Orono reports stable numbers. Participation has risen in Spring Lake Park and in Minneapolis, by as much as 30 percent.

Minneapolis schools' nutrition director Bertrand Weber said early implementation, on-site preparation and more fresh, self-serve options made a huge improvement over last year's sealed baggies and airtight containers.

Chef Marshall O'Brien has been working with a number of metro-area school districts -- including Jordan -- since April on ways to improve the taste of the new lunches and their presentation. He and others urged patience.

"We historically have been overfed and undernourished," said O'Brien. "You're going to have some initial pushback."

Kris Diller, Orono's supervisor of child nutrition, said the process will be in the experimental phase for a long time as schools work out kinks in distribution, schedules and kids' resistance to change.

"The goal is to keep exposing them, and keep bringing out new things," she said. "After a while it won't be unfamiliar. It will be the familiar. But it's a learning curve for all of us."

'Taking away stuff we like'

But many students already have made up their minds.

Jack Elliott, a senior swimmer from Buffalo High School, said he understands and supports changes meant to make him and his generation healthier for a lifetime.

"But for people that are healthy and do sports and work out every day, it's lame that we don't get to eat the normal portions, and that our caloric intake is lower," he said, noting that he's lost weight since school started.

"They're trying to make it healthier, but they're taking away the stuff we like," said Tessa Ostvig, a senior at Orono High School.

Mike Huso, an eighth-grader at Westwood Intermediate School in Blaine, misses the stuffed-crust pizza that his school no longer serves. "It's good to have adult insight, but we don't get a whole lot of say over what we're going to eat," he said.

Still others said the changes aren't major.

"They're requiring more fruits and vegetables," said Jackie Gehling, a junior at St. Francis High School. "That's not a big deal to me, because I like fruits and vegetables. I'm not hungry because I fill up my plate, but some kids end up at the snack line."

The complaints prompt some adults to wonder if students aren't protesting too much. We're talking about one meal here. And aren't some of these kids making things worse by skipping breakfast?

Nutrition directors say that the School Lunch Program, founded in 1946, always has been designed to be one part of the 2,000-calories-a-day regimen needed by the average student. An athlete needs as many as 3,000 calories a day.

"We've been telling our students, never was school lunch meant to fill up athletes; we know that," said Wendy Knight, food and nutrition services coordinator for the Rosemount-Eagan-Apple Valley School District. "It's a third of what their required nutritional allotment was. It's just a third."

It's reasonable to expect athletes to eat a nutritious breakfast and pack snacks to eat before practice, some adult observers say.

"We all want our kids to stand on their own two feet, to turn out to be adults who are competent, responsible and accountable," said child psychologist Dr. David Walsh, of Mind Positive Parenting. "That doesn't happen automatically. It happens in a million and one lessons, day in and day out, and it's the tough part of parenting."

Chef O'Brien believes it will take years to get students to be comfortable with the new nutritional standards. "This is a baby-step process," he said. "It is going to take years."

mbaca@startribune.com • 612-673-4409 hme@startribune.com • 952-746-3281

  • related content

  • Fast facts on school lunch

    Saturday October 13, 2012

    • The new lunch plan marks the first major change in 15 years for the federal meal program. It sets calorie limits for meals, adjusted for students' ages, and increases...

  • Chef Marshall O'Brien

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Can the Wild rally to win its playoff series against Colorado?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close