Are Healthy School Lunches Getting Trashed?

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Federally mandated healthy and calorie-specific lunches aren't finding many fans in school cafeterias around the country, according to media reports. Many of the fruits and vegetables are ending up in the garbage and students, especially high school athletes, say they need more food.

Listeners of The Brian Lehrer Show had a chance to join the discussion during Tuesday’s open phone segment, and their opinions were as varied as the ingredients at the school salad bar.

A caller to Tuesday’s show, Jennifer of Princeton, NJ, recalled going to school in the 1970s and having a buttered roll and Tab for lunch every day. “Anything’s better than what we used to do, which was to eat junk,” she said.

On Lehrer’s Facebook page, Anne Powell Lyons said she appreciated the effort made to improve the quality of lunches at city schools. “My daughter's public school works with WITS (Wellness in the Schools) which comes in and attempts to make D.O.E.-supplied food taste better. Cafeteria food is cafeteria food, but it's all an improvement on what's been offered in the past. It will balance out eventually and the kids will benefit. And everyone has the option to pack their own lunch.”

In online comments, glork of Glen Ridge, N.J., suggested going directly to the students. “ASK THEM: How could we help you get 3 servings of fruits/vegetables? Make a contest! From 4th grade on, let them have some input on a lunch survey. Maybe it's worth spending a little extra on the strawberries instead of the apples sometimes, just as many of us do at home to tempt them.”

The controversy relates to the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which places calorie limits on school lunches. High school lunches must not exceed 850 calories, middle school lunches must be no more than 700 calories and elementary school lunches must not be more than 650 calories.

Students across the country have staged protests, demanding changes to their school lunches, and this music video parody produced by a group of Kansas high school students has found an enthusiastic audience on YouTube.

In New York City, many of these menu changes were implemented several years ago. According to the New York Times:

"The most noticeable change this year is the fruit and vegetable requirement, which has resulted in some waste, according to Eric Goldstein, the Education Department official who oversees food services. It is not hard to see why. At Middle School 104 in Gramercy Park on Friday, several seventh graders pronounced vegetables “gross.”

“I just throw them out,” said Danielson Gutierrez, 12, carrying a slice of pizza, which he had liberally sprinkled with seasonings, and a pear. He also offered his opinion on fruit: “I throw them out, too. I only like apples.”

Courtney Rowe, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Agriculture, which sets school food regulations, said that despite the complaints about lighter lunches, federal audits showed the average high school lunch before this year contained only 730 calories, less than the minimum number of calories they must now contain, 750.

Of course, students may not be eating all the calories they are being served, though Ms. Rowe noted that in most schools, students have the option of buying additional food à la carte.

Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association, said food service directors were using a variety of strategies to get students to embrace the new menus, including asking teachers to talk about healthy food in class, conducting taste tests, handing out free samples and educating students about how their food is grown and made.

But the most effective strategy, several food service directors said, may simply be waiting. Research shows that children must be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will eat them on their own, said William J. McCarthy, a professor of public health and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“If our task is to get young kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have to be willing to put up with the waste,” he said."

Let us know what you think about the new healthy school lunches. Join the discussion here at Schoolbook.