MARSHALL - New federal requirements for school meals were put in place this year, but are they truly a healthier option or a one-size-fits-all nightmare?
Arguments seem to vary and for some, it may be too soon to tell what kind of effect the new mandate will have on the millions of schoolchildren across the country.
One thing is certain: school lunch trays will look somewhat differently as the National School Lunch Program, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, pushes its way into school cafeterias.
Photos by Jenny Kirk
Senior Emily DeSchepper took advantage of the salad bar option during lunchtime Wednesday at Marshall High School. Students, parents and food service workers are still trying to get used to a number of changes that were implemented by the USDA for the 2012-13 school year, including minimum and maximum portion sizes and calorie counts.
The new USDA requirements, the biggest update to federal school food guidelines in 15 years, are designed to improve the health and nutrition of students, while helping them maintain a healthy weight. The changes are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress in 2010.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The percentage of 6- through 11-year-olds who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Adolescent obesity increased from 5 percent to 18 percent in the past three decades. And, more than one-third of school-age children are considered overweight or obese.
Whether or not school lunches are to blame, Taher Foods is up for the challenge.
"We're going to make this work because it's a good thing," said Lori Fruin, Taher Foods director at Marshall Public Schools. "It's just going to take some time to get it all in place. We've just got to work together."
Fruin has worked as a food service director for three decades, so she has seen countless changes and improvements throughout the years.
"When I started, there was only one cook to serve everything," she said. "There were five of us standing there serving food. You had one choice and were expected to eat everything on your plate."
But now, students have many more options in addition to bringing their own lunch to school.
"The food is good," Marshall High School freshman Isaac Marks said. "And, there are a lot more choices than there were in middle school."
While the different options, including a daily Type A meal that is reimbursable by the federal government and a variety of food from the a la carte sections that can be purchased in addition, are appealing to students, the new USDA guidelines have been challenging for Fruin and the other food service workers. Not only does it cost more to eat healthy these days, it also takes a great deal of planning.
"The biggest change is making the protein portion smaller and the vegetable portion larger," Fruin said. "We've had to redo all our recipes. We actually had to do two different recipes, one for students in K-8 and one for 9-12."
The new mandate sets caloric minimums and maximums for each student, based on age. Daily amounts for students in grades K-5 are to be between 550 to 650 calories for lunch, while the sixth- through eighth-grade requirements are set between 600 to 700. For schools with a fifth- through eighth-grade middle school, like Marshall, it can be a hassle.
One of the biggest concerns, though, may be the 750 to 850 USDA caloric limits at lunchtime for students in grades 9 through 12. While Taher has worked hard to prepare nutritious meals within the new guidelines, some students at Marshall are left feeling hungry.
"I'm still starving as a 16-year-old boy," Bryce Johnson said about the Type A meals.
Like a large number of students at MHS, Johnson supplements his daily meal with a la carte items.
"It ends up costing me a lot more for less food," he said. "That makes me very angry."
MHS sophomore Nate Hoeft noticed the change in food portions the very first day of school.
"It's definitely different," Hoeft said. "You can tell they were smaller portions."
For example, he said, students were allowed two corn dogs last year, but Wednesday, only one could be given to each student since Taher is bound by the new maximum grain restrictions.
"It's a big change for students," Fruin said. "We used to have bread out and let the students have all the bread they can eat. But now, they can only have so much grain (10-12 ounces weekly). With the corn dog, that's their grain right there."
Schools are also being asked to cut back on protein, which most experts believe are essential for building strong muscles. As a result, Taher is still working on some recipes in order to reduce the protein levels in them. Fruin is also unsure what to do with all the commodity peanut butter, in regards to the protein and condiment limits.
While no protein is required for school breakfasts, the 2012 mandate requires students in grades K-8 to have a minimum of 1 ounce of meat or meat alternate daily for lunch and sets an 8-10 ounce weekly limit. High school-age students must be given a minimum of 2 ounces of protein daily, with a 10-12 ounce weekly limit.
To add to his meal, Hoeft digs into his pockets for cash.
"You try to make it work," he said. "I buy a la carte. The cookies are good."
While eating healthy and maintaining a proper weight are not always synonymous, one does have to keep in mind that two-thirds of school-age children are not considered overweight or obese. If that majority does not have an issue with weight, what will be the result of lowering total caloric intakes during the day? What does it mean for a 15-year-old girl who is extremely active in volleyball? A 17-year-old cross country runner? A 200-plus pound football player?
What do the new guidelines mean for the 16 million U.S. children who live in homes where there is a struggle to put enough food on the table? Currently, 34.3 percent of students at Marshall are considered part of the free and reduced lunch population.
By some accounts, especially with the economy the way it is, school breakfasts and lunches might be the only meal some students get on a consistent daily basis. So what does mean for their brain power and ability to do adequate school work? It also brings up the argument over whose responsibility it is to feed children: the schools or the parents?
"I really don't think a student will go away hungry if they take everything they're offered," Fruin said.
The problem, some believe, is getting students to eat everything on their plate. To count as a full, reimbursable meal, students are now required to have one-half cup of fruits or vegetables on their tray.
"We had to rethink how to prepare for this because it takes a lot more time to cut everything up because every student has to have a half cup of fruits and vegetables," Fruin said. "That's the minimum. They can have up to a cup of each."
Schools are also required to offer dark green, orange and red vegetables and legumes at least once a week. At MHS, at least three different fresh vegetables are offered every day, along with a canned and fresh fruit.
"The Farm to School program has been a positive," Fruin said. "I just got a load in from the Ruppert Farm, so we'll have fresh carrots, cucumbers, green beans, onions and potatoes."
Taher, which has contracted with Marshall for more than 30 years, has also been on track with the federal guidelines in regards to removing trans fats from school menus, having done that when it launched its Food 4 Life initiative in 2007.
Taher also made adjustments a few years back in anticipation of the grain component. Initially, at least 51 percent of all grains offered must be whole grain, which Marshall is in compliance with. By the 2014-15 school year, all grains offered are required to be whole grain.
According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, nutrition for kids is based on the same principles as that of adults, with everyone needing vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The difference is the specific amount of nutrients at different ages.
Based on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Dietary Guideline for Americans, boys ages 14-18 require 2,000-3,200 calories daily, depending on growth and activity. Those guidelines include 5.5-7 ounces protein, 2-2.5 cups fruit, 2.5-4 cups vegetables, 6-10 ounces grains and three cups dairy.
For girls ages 14-18, 1,800-2,400 daily calories are suggested, including 5.6-6.5 ounces protein, 1.5-2 cups fruit, 2.5-3 cups vegetables, 6-8 ounces grains and three cups dairy.
"It's pathetic," MHS senior Danica Verkinderen said about the federally-mandated smaller portion sizes. "And it's not right to have to pay $1.75 now for french fries."
Prior to this year, french fries could be included as part of a Type A meal.
"We lowered the prices at the grill station because we can't have the french fries with it anymore because of the calorie count," Fruin said. "We had to put up signs to make it clear that they are not with the Type A lunch anymore."
Fellow classmate Miranda Aguirre echoed Verkinderen's sentiments.
"It's too little," Aguirre said.
To get through the school day, the two seniors said they "bring snacks."
While the USDA anticipates increasing the number of eligible children enrolled in the school meals programs, it's possible that the opposite could occur. If students turn up their nose at the smaller portions and refuse a Type A meal, the federal government will save money since they are not having to reimburse the meal. That means parents will foot more of the bill, at heftier prices than the cost of a Type A lunches. Since a la carte items are available to students, does that mean the USDA is really concerned about student health and weight?
"I like it," Drew Hmielewski said about the ice cream.
Kid-friendly a la carte items at MHS include a salad bar, pretzels, nachos, pizza, hamburgers, egg rolls, Pop Tarts, pudding, juice, water, string cheese, nuts, chips, slushies and ice cream.
"It's good," Nick Saugstad said about his ice cream cone. "Vanilla's my favorite."
But what happens if students cannot afford a la carte items or do not have access to snacks from home? Will they leave the cafeteria hungry, but somehow healthier? Perhaps time will tell.
There has also been concern that limiting calories for everyone based on age alone will have the opposite affect. Rather than choosing healthier options and smaller portions, some believe that it will cause students to overeat after school, and that those students will quite likely choose the wrong kinds of food, the convenient, high-fat and low-nutrient kinds.
Continuing to educate students about nutritious choices available to them may be part of the solution. On the first day of school, MHS Principal Brian Jones and Assistant Principal Jeremy Williams sat all the students down and explained the situation to them.
"We laid out our expectations to begin with so it's easier to follow," Williams said. "We explained what is going on with the new changes. It's about learning to make wise choices."
In a few weeks, Fruin will work together with a student lunch committee to see what Taher can change and do better.
"We're here for the kids, so why not have them tell us what they want?" she said. "We want them to eat and be happy."