Schools across the country are serving new cafeteria entreés and side dishes and lower-fat versions of flavored milk now that the regulations under the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have kicked in. Despite the excitement some districts are trying to generate about the new meals, a few months into the revamped menus, some schools are facing criticism about what they’re serving—and how much of it.
Among the protests is one originating at Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kan., where students created a parody of “We Are Young,” by the band Fun, and posted it on YouTube. In the “We Are Hungry” parody, students bemoan the calorie limits set by the new regulations—a maximum of 850 calories for high school lunches. (Since that initial posting last month, the students have added a message saying they are excited about the opportunity to eat more fruits and vegetables, but insist that the meals they are served at their 70-student school are too small.) Their video received about a million views as of last week.
At Parsippanny Hills High School in Parsippany, N.J., students boycotted school lunches for several days. A high school principal in Mukwonago, Wisc., told The New York Times that school meal participation is down 70 percent this school year.
Are those 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,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the Oxon Hill, Md.-based SNA, said in an email.
Schools in Collegeville, Pa., and Montclair, N.J., for example, celebrated last week—National School Lunch Week—by putting out a spread of fresh fruits and vegetables for students to sample.
Time to Adapt
The new rules require a wider variety and more servings of fruits and vegetables at each meal, less salt, less fat, and more whole grains, and they set minimum and maximum calorie ranges for meals. Previously, there was no ceiling on calories.
Ms. Pratt-Heavner said 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, R-Iowa, to introduce the No Hungry Kids Act, which would ban the USDA from implementing calorie limits in school lunches.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she didn’t think the bill would get much traction. The USDA’s plans for cutting back on potato servings and banning counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable serving, however, were thwarted by congressional action.
Last week, some Republican members of the U.S. House education committee asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to re-examine the new meal rules because of news reports about students going hungry, food being wasted, and increased costs for schools.
The National School Lunch Program was created because of concerns that many young men were too malnourished to serve in World War II. Now, one in three American children is obese, and the children who are so active their caloric needs exceed nutritional guidelines are outnumbered by their overweight counterparts.
The program’s premise is to feed low-cost or no-cost meals to children who otherwise might not have enough to eat. As children’s-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel noted, many of the students protesting the new rules have the means to bring or buy their own meals, or supplement them.
The USDA’s rules about the calories and contents of school meals were developed on the basis of recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine—a federally chartered group that advises policymakers—and other experts. Pizza, fries, and other favorites are still available every day at many schools on unregulated a la carte menus. The 2010 federal law authorizes the USDA to regulate those items and what’s sold in school vending machines, but it hasn’t done so 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.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as New School Lunch Rules Spur Student Protests