Student Well-Being

New School Meal Rules Trigger Protests, Boycotts

By Nirvi Shah — October 15, 2012 4 min read
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Across the country, schools are serving all sorts of new entreés and side dishes and lower-fat versions of flavored milk now that regulations derived from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have kicked in. Despite the excitement some districts are trying to generate about the new meals, just a few months into the revamped menus, some schools are being criticized about what they’re serving—and how much of it.

Among the most popular protests is one from students at the very small Wallace County High in Sharon Springs, Kansas. Students created a parody of “We Are Young,” by Fun. In “We Are Hungry,” they bemoan the calorie limits set by the new regulations—a maximum of 850 calories for high school lunches. (Since first posting the song last month, the students have added a message acknowledging that they are excited about the opportunity to eat more fruits and vegetables, but insisting that the meals they are served at school are too small.) Their YouTube video has about a million views. At a high school in New Jersey, students boycotted school lunches for several days. A high school principal in Wisconsin told The New York Times that school meal participation is down 70 percent this school year.

Are these schools outliers? Yes, says the School Nutrition Association.

“While some schools are legitimately struggling to meet (and their students struggling to accept) these complex regulations, there are many school districts where students have welcomed or not even recognized the changes under the new standards,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, of the Oxon Hill, Md.-based SNA. She pointed out a number of events slated for this week—National School Lunch Week—that schools are hosting to get kids excited about the transition to the new standards. The new rules require a wider variety and more servings of fruits and vegetables at each meal, less salt, less fat, more whole grains, and set minimum and maximum calorie ranges for meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, notes that in the past the average lunch served in high school had about 730 calories. Now, schools must serve between 750 and 850 calories, although more of those calories may now come from fruits and vegetables.

Pratt-Heavner says what many parents can attest to: It takes time for young people to accept new foods, and sometimes they have to be presented repeatedly before children will try them.

But the early protests have prompted U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, to introduce the No Hungry Kids Act, which would ban the USDA from implementing calorie limits in school lunches. While Margo Wootan of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest said she doesn’t think the bill will get much traction, consider that USDA’s plans for cutting back on potato servings and eliminating the counting of tomato paste on pizza as a serving of vegetables have already been thwarted.

UPDATE: In an Oct. 18 letter , some Republican members of the U.S. House education committee have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reexamine the new school meal rules.

“According to recent reports, high school students, especially athletes, are going hungry a few hours after lunch because of the 850 calorie maximum; school cafeterias are seeing increased levels of food waste as many students throw away the fruit and vegetables they are required to take; and many state and school officials are experiencing dramatic increases in the cost of administering school lunch and breakfast programs. We are disappointed USDA has refused to address these concerns and instead continues to push a one-size-fits-all policy that ties the hands of local school lunch providers,” they wrote. The writers include committee chairman John Kline of Minnesota.

The National School Lunch Program was created because of concerns that too many young men were too malnourished to serve in World War II. Times have changed: Now, one in three American children is obese, and the children who are so active their caloric needs far exceed nutritional guidelines are outnumbered by their overweight counterparts. The program’s premise is to feed children who otherwise wouldn’t have enough to eat low-cost or no-cost meals. As blogger Bettina Elias Siegel notes, many of the students protesting the new school meals have the means to bring or buy their own meals, or buy items to supplement those meals.

The USDA’s rules about the calories and contents of school meals were developed based on recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine, among other experts. Pizza, fries, and other favorites are available every day at many schools on unregulated a la carte menus. (The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorizes USDA to regulate these items, as well as what’s sold in school vending machines, but it hasn’t done that yet.)

In any case, the agency said that if a school “encounters significant hardships employing the new calorie requirements, we stand ready to work with them quickly and effectively to remedy the situation with additional flexibilities.”

All week, the SNA has been tweeting photos of school lunch trays from around the country, Pratt-Heavner said. “It’s hard to argue when you see some of these lunch trays that students are going hungry.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.