Let’s Re-Do Lunch

At So. Royalton School, Meals a Little Different Under New Rules

  • South Royalton School seventh-graders Kylen Nelson, left, and Aliza George pick up tacos for that day’s lunch. Serving them are Linda Wheelock, second from right, and Bonnie Van Fossen. Today’s school lunches feature more variety than in the past. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    South Royalton School seventh-graders Kylen Nelson, left, and Aliza George pick up tacos for that day’s lunch. Serving them are Linda Wheelock, second from right, and Bonnie Van Fossen. Today’s school lunches feature more variety than in the past. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • South Royalton School eighth-graders Tyler Benson, left, and Aaron Welch talk while eating their lunch at school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    South Royalton School eighth-graders Tyler Benson, left, and Aaron Welch talk while eating their lunch at school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Second-graders Zach Frary, left, and Danny Smith eat their lunch at the South Royalton School. Frary is eating the school’s hot lunch and Smith brought his from home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Second-graders Zach Frary, left, and Danny Smith eat their lunch at the South Royalton School. Frary is eating the school’s hot lunch and Smith brought his from home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • South Royalton School seventh-graders Kylen Nelson, left, and Aliza George pick up tacos for that day’s lunch. Serving them are Linda Wheelock, second from right, and Bonnie Van Fossen. Today’s school lunches feature more variety than in the past. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • South Royalton School eighth-graders Tyler Benson, left, and Aaron Welch talk while eating their lunch at school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Second-graders Zach Frary, left, and Danny Smith eat their lunch at the South Royalton School. Frary is eating the school’s hot lunch and Smith brought his from home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

South Royalton — This is not your parents’ school lunch menu. On a recent Tuesday at the South Royalton School, students filing through the lunch line could choose a hot meal of diced chicken in a marinara sauce with basil, served with pasta and a vegetable dish of peas and baby onions.

The salad and vegetable bars offered tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, potato and bean salads, carrots, coleslaw and peppers. Cartons of low-fat and skim milk were in a small refrigerator case. Students helped themselves to cantaloupe slices and grapes for dessert.

It’s a far cry from decades past, when a grim array of mystery meats slathered in mystery sauce with a side order of watery canned corn were the A to Z of school nutrition. There’s more choice, more food from other cultures, like hummus, that have become so popular that they’re almost Americanized, and more fruits, vegetables and grains.

Welcome to your child’s school cafeteria, eight months into the new USDA regulations on what can foods can be served through the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program, which feeds approximately 32 million children in 100,000 public schools daily, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. It has been 15 years since the last revision of the guidelines.

What is now under way in school lunchrooms is one of the most ambitious public health initiatives ever undertaken by the U.S. government: trying to shrink 30 years of climbing obesity rates among children and young adults.

As with any campaign of this magnitude, the reaction has been mixed, with the bulk of the criticism centering on the smaller portions and restricted calories.

“You’re hungry the rest of the day,” said Madison Distel, a ninth-grader at South Royalton, who was eating lunch with some friends at a table where salt and pepper shakers were noticeably absent.

“Even the younger kids ask, ‘How come this bagel is so small?’ ” said Linda Wheelock, director of food services at the school, who had been revamping the lunch menu well before the new guidelines were announced in 2010.

Another reservation is that the standards don’t take into account that calorie needs will vary from child to child. The number of calories a student athlete requires daily is going to be much greater than the calorie requirements of a child who is less active, so why not have the option of adjusting for that difference?

The effect of the revamped national school lunch program can’t be assessed in a mere eight months. It will take a generation of children growing to maturity before its efficacy can be measured.

In the last 30 years, the number of children considered obese has tripled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 12 million children and teenagers — 17 percent of that age group — are obese, which places them at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. One in three children from low-income families is likely to be overweight or obese because of poor diet.

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that among children age 2-5, obesity increased from 5 percent to 10 percent between 1976-1980 and 2007-2008; and from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent among those age 6-11. Among adolescents age 12-19, obesity increased from 5 percent to 18 percent during the same period.

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act mandated that the USDA change the standards for school food, citing both the government’s revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the alarming rates of weight gain in children. Michelle Obama has made healthy nutrition and exercise a central part of her portfolio as first lady with the Let’s Move campaign.

The new regulations, which were implemented at the start of the 2012-2013 school year, emphasize larger portions of fruits, vegetables, grains and whole grains, reduced sodium, and smaller portions of meat and meat alternatives. Milk is low-fat or skim. Fat is confined to 10 percent of the daily calorie requirement, and trans fats are not permitted.

The lunchtime calorie allowance for students in kindergarten through fifth grade is a minimum of 550 calories and a maximum of 650 calories; for students in grades six through eight, the allowance is 600-700 calories; for grades nine through 12, the allowance is 750-850 calories.

Although there had been minimum calorie requirements in place previous to the new regulations, there were no maximum calorie limits.

“Up to this year we didn’t have to count calories, we didn’t have to limit proteins and grains,” said Wheelock.

It’s the reduction in portion sizes that seems to most disturb the students. Skye Lockwood, a junior at South Royalton School, recalled getting a serving of nachos with a helping of ground beef the size of a “tiny ice cream scoop.”

“We get the same amount as the little kids” ( the seventh- and eighth-graders), said senior Brian Striker, an athlete.

In fact, the new regulations allow students in grades nine through 12 at least two ounces a day each of grains and meat or meat alternates, while children in the younger grades are allowed at least one ounce each of meats and grains. The other elements are the same for all grade levels.

There have been other objections: fruits and vegetables too often end up in the garbage, and those who ask for second helpings are being asked to pay.

Some of the complaints seem like typical adolescent grumbling, with a small helping of exaggeration thrown in, but there are inconsistencies in the regulations that haven’t yet been addressed by the USDA.

For example: Students who bring lunch from home are exempt from the standards. And unless summer sessions at schools immediately follow the regular school year, the schools don’t have to observe the new rules in any summer programs they offer.

And schools are only part of the story: What children eat at home is the salient influence on diet.

“They’re not getting the food that makes them overweight from school,” said Michael Howe, a ninth-grader. What might be needed, he said, is better education, such as the strong national anti-smoking campaigns.

A school’s job, said Jim Vezina, director of finance for the Hartford School District, is “to feed kids to get them ready to learn. That’s our challenge and that’s our thrust and we just want to do that appropriately. Our kids are fed in the morning and at noontime. It’s hard to get a kid to learn and listen when their stomach is growling.”

He wishes, he said, that the regulations were more flexible.

In November, a bipartisan group of 11 senators from the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Indiana, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, called on the USDA to loosen the rules regarding how much grain and meat or meat alternatives could be served, citing school and parental concerns about children not getting enough to eat, as well as the rigidity of the regulations.

Not coincidentally, beef and grains are leading exports of these state economies and are sold to USDA Foods, formerly the USDA Commodities Distribution Program.

In response, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced before the end of the year that the USDA would grant greater wiggle room in the grain and meat and meat alternate requirements. In March, virtually the same group of senators then sponsored the Sensible School Lunch Act, which seeks to introduce greater flexibility into the guidelines.

In all, though, the change was negligible because the minimum and maximum calorie requirements weren’t altered, said Wheelock.

“That has been my biggest complaint,” she said. “Relaxing the rule didn’t really help us much.”

Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition programs at the Vermont Department of Education in Montpelier, has heard the critiques. “I think there’s been a mixed review” of the new regulations, she said. “Schools that started making changes when the proposed regulations came out (in 2010) have been more successful. It’s been a less stressful transition.”

In other words, schools that had already begun incorporating more nutritious foods in their school lunch menus, both for health reasons and in anticipation of the coming changes, had less difficulty with abiding by the regulations and with habituating students to the new menus. But, Colgan conceded, it is “challenging for calories to be one-size-fits all because clearly it doesn’t. When you average it out it works, but it won’t work for student athletes who are burning 4,000-6,000 calories a day.”

Further complicating the efforts to improve children’s nutrition, she said, is “we can make all these healthy lunches, but will it be effective if students aren’t buying them?”

It takes time for students to adjust to a new regimen, and the nature of school schedules runs counter to a more deliberative way of approaching food.

“In many cases students … would rather do something that’s quick, grab and go. They need more time to eat and enjoy lunch and savor and try new things.”

As South Royalton students go through the line, their final stop is the cash register operated by Debbie Donoghue, who uses a computer program that tracks the five required components schools are required to serve: protein, grain, vegetables, fruit and milk. She advised one young boy to go back for the grain portion. A student can decline up to two of the components but must take a fruit or vegetable. Students who don’t want a hot lunch can make their own sandwiches.

The USDA does give schools the choice of automatically serving students the five food groups, or offering them. To minimize waste, Wheelock said, South Royalton opted to let students choose which three food groups they wanted to take at a meal. Even so, said Lockwood, the South Royalton junior, “so many students waste fruits and vegetables. I understand the idea behind it but there’s so much waste.”

Wheelock said she sees about the same amount of waste as she always has, and items from the meals brought from home end up in the garbage with as much frequency as the school food.

There are about 350 students at South Royalton School, and a little more than half of them, Wheelock said, bring lunch from home. The exceptions to that, she said with a laugh, are the universally popular pizza and taco days. Since the new rules took effect, she hasn’t noticed an uptick in the number of students carrying in their own lunches.

The cafeteria prepares about 200 lunches a day. About 53 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, Wheelock said, an increase from 47 percent in October; and the majority of that 53 percent are getting their lunch at no charge.

Wheelock knows that adjusting to the new regimen hasn’t been easy for some students, but what they don’t always understand, she said, “is that we can’t give them unlimited qualities at one price. I think we would all like to have an unlimited amount of food for nothing.”

A full-price meal for students in kindergarten through grade six costs $2.40; for students in grades seven through 12, that charge increases to $2.65. A reduced price meal is 40 cents.

The federal reimbursements are not over-generous. Reduced price meals are reimbursed at $2.46, and free meals at $2.86. Schools in compliance with the new regulations, as South Royalton is, receive an additional six cents per meal from the government.

Regardless, Wheelock said, “the price of groceries keeps going up.” The cost of a single apple at a grocery store, Colgan said, is around 90 cents.

Wheelock tries to use as much food from USDA Foods as possible: The diced tomatoes and chicken that were in the chicken scampi were bought from USDA Foods.

Vermont’s Farm to School program, which has been lauded for making fresh produce from local farmers available to schools, sounds as if it is an ideal way to close the gap between what the school can afford to pay and what the government actually reimburses. The reality is more complex.

While acknowledging that Farm to School is an important piece of statewide school lunch programs, Wheelock said, it’s not the complete solution, either. “The cost of produce can be quite an impact. I buy local produce when possible … but we haven’t found our little niche of where we can sustain it. Local farmers, their market is organic and higher end. I just can’t pay those prices.”

School gardens might help offset the expense, but that “needs to be driven in school by parents and kids,” Wheelock said.

The cost of implementing the new regulations has been onerous, said Tim Murphy, chairman of the South Royalton School Board, because schools have had to spend more on fruits, vegetables and grains.

“It doesn’t sound like much to offer a healthier lunch or breakfast,” he said , “but in South Royalton, for example, when you look at that budget and it’s 20 percent more and they have to track everything to get reimbursed, a lot of food services are having to make adjustments to cover the budget — or run a deficit.”

Since 2011, when the subsidy was $7,000 and the actual cost was $22,000, the budget for the lunch program has risen steadily, Murphy said. The school broke even in 2012 when both the subsidy and the cost came in at $10,000. For 2013 and 2014, the proposed subsidies are $15,000 and $18,000, respectively. The hope is that the school will break even both years.

There have been other obstacles to successful implementation of the new requirements. Asking students to take either a fruit or a vegetable on their trays wasn’t an issue for younger children, said Colgan, but “for middle or high school grades that was a challenge. They got angry about their loss of control. OK, I’ll take it, but then they go to the waste basket and throw it away.”

Another factor: Over the years, school kitchens had gotten rid of such basic cooking equipment as pots and pans because they had moved to pre-packaged meals. “You can’t easily meet these new requirements with heat and serve,” Colgan said. Different food preparation and cooking skills are now needed.

And while there was an expectation by the USDA that schools would take time to explain to students what the new regulations meant and why they were in place, she said, that message wasn’t as clear as it could have been.

In the background are complex cultural and social issues that have contributed to the rise in childhood obesity. There’s the dwindling role of home economics or consumer science classes in the national curriculum, the prevalence of families with two working parents who may have different schedules, the diminished role of family dinners, and lives that are, by and large, more sedentary than active.

Perhaps most significant, there’s been what’s called “portion distortion,” the bloating of serving sizes by fast food and chain restaurants and food manufacturers.

“The food industry and marketers have done a real disservice to people,” Colgan said. “What’s small now was comparable to large once.”

“We need to get back to what is a normal portion,” Wheelock said.

So how do schools walk the line between some students’ taste for foods that are heavy on salt, sugar and fat and foods that are more nutritious but suffer from the dreaded “It’s good for you” label?

Designing a menu that students will eat is “very challenging,” said Chris Faro, director of training and standards for school menus at Cafe Services, in Londonderry, N.H., which contracts to provide food to 39 public schools in Vermont and New Hampshire, including Lebanon. “It takes a lot of creativity and some real knowledge of what kids’ preferences are.”

The trick is to craft a menu that both follows the regulations and appeals to children’s palates, he said. A strategy they use when introducing a new vegetable in elementary school is to do sample tastings with students. Kale chips got a surprisingly warm reception.

But, Faro said, in the unlikely scenario that they were to try to serve kale as an entree, rather than as an appetizer or side dish, that might be a different story.

Allowing students to participate in menu planning may, in fact, be part of the solution to getting them to embrace the dietary requirements, said Colgan. “Some schools have … advisory committees to get students involved in their food service programs. … Kitchens can use the committees to do taste tests.”

“I think it would be cool if we could give them ideas on what to make,” said Iris Hudson, who is in the eighth grade at South Royalton.

With all the focus on school meals, though, some wonder why equal attention isn’t paid to physical exercise, which goes hand-in-hand with a sensible, nutritious diet in maintaining a healthy weight. “If you’re eating healthy but sitting on the couch, there’s little benefit,” said Dylan Striker, a South Royalton senior.

Wheelock agreed. The obesity crisis is a national problem, she said, and it should be tackled not only by looking at what children eat in school but whether they understand the science of nutrition, and what their level of physical activity is in school, and out.

The issue can be seen from any number of angles — health, class, race, the influence of advertising, the maneuverings of the food industry, the reality that schools are now asked to function as surrogate parents, with children there from early in the morning till into the early evening — and become discouraged by the scope of the problem.

But Wheelock has reasons for optimism. “The earlier you target students the more apt they are to make positive changes for themselves,” she said. “With younger students, there’s more of an eagerness to try new things. Kindergarten students have been fabulous about putting together healthy meals.”

Colgan also is hopeful: “We would like to think that when these food choices are modeled over time students will develop a preference for these foods.”

The true measure, Colgan said, will be to analyze how this year’s first-grade students have fared in terms of their health and weight 12 years from now, when they are graduating from high school. Then schools, parents, doctors and nutritionists will have a real sense of whether the USDA regulations effected change in the way they were intended.

A recent study in Online First, a publication of the American Medical Association, seems to bear this out. The study, which looked at nearly 5,000 students in 40 states, compared children in public schools that had already developed stricter nutrition standards in their school lunches with children in schools that had not.

The study found that children who took advantage of free or reduced lunch programs that offered more nutritious food were less likely to be obese, and they did not appear to compensate for smaller portions and leaner foods by purchasing salty or sugary snacks or drinking soda from school vending machines.

There have been some wrinkles in implementing the revised standards, said Murphy, the chairman of the South Royalton School Board. But the larger point is to build in good habits, show children that there is a balance to be maintained between taste and nutrition, and demonstrate that one does not need to be sacrificed for the other.

“And for kids who are in free or reduced lunch,” he said, “this is the best nutrition they get.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.