New school lunches get mixed reviews

by Julie Snyder

School LunchOnly a month ago, new federal guidelines mandating healthy lunches went into effect.

Some kids are finding them hard to swallow.

As you read or listen to the news, you'll hear kids complaining that their lunches aren't filling them up.

What are these new guidelines and how do they differ from previous years?

Students give new lunch guidelines mixed grades

Lunch lines at schools across the country detour through the garden now. Under new U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards, kids selecting pizza sticks or hamburgers also had to choose something from the lunch line's cornucopia of apples, bananas, fresh spinach and grape.

Kids don't have to eat the food, but the hope is that they will. The leaner, greener school lunches served under new federal standards get mixed reviews.

As part of the first changes to school-lunch rules in 15 years, these guidelines mandate:

✓ More fruits and vegetables
✓ Smaller portions
✓ Fewer calories
✓ Less meat and cheese

The U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted other new rules for this school year as well: More whole grains, less salt and more offerings of legumes. For the first time, maximum calorie counts for protein, grains and full meals are in effect. They're another tactic to control obesity which kills more Americans than any cancer.

So far, the regulations cover only school lunches but new rules are coming for school breakfasts and foods offered in vending machines.

In many districts, the new regulation meals offer roughly the same amount of calories, just a different mix -- more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less cheese and meat.

Calories now and then

The calorie cap for elementary kids is 650, for middle school, 700 and for high schoolers, 850.

On NPR, Jessica Donze Black of Pew Trust's Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project points out that the 850 calorie cap for high school kids isn't drastically different from lunches before. "When we look at what students were actually eating on average a couple of years ago, it was around 790 calories in an average lunch."

Fruits and vegetables and whole grains contain more fiber and should make the kids feel fuller, not hungrier. Why doesn't it?

One answer might be the 50% increase in lunch room trash. It appears to be mostly fruits and vegetables. If the food goes in the trash instead of in a child's stomach, you've got a healthy trash can and a hungry kid.

Districts get creative

Districts have been coming up with creative solutions to the toss-it-in-the-trash problem:

✓ Give the foods catchy names like x-ray vision carrots and power beans. Kids ate way more and threw away much less.
✓ Chef comes to school programs, like the one here in Seattle.

The district has a history of thinking outside the tray. Several years ago, the district connected with chef, Tom Douglas. Among the first things to go were misconceptions. A lot of people assume kids want bland food. Notes from family nights and focus groups showed the opposite, "We want hot sauce!"

Family nights showed another surprise. Kids like steamed white fish, coming back for seconds and thirds. Once they'd identified meals that were both healthy and appealing to kids, the next step was finding ways to mass-produce them within the practical constraints of the public-school system.

Federal and state funds provide Seattle Schools with about $3 per student meal, but that amount must also cover labor costs. The district ends up with about $1.10 for the actual food.

Next comes innovate within the existing infrastructure. Some ideas for new dishes -- like a Thai spring roll -- had to be altered, offered as a cold dish.

What you can't replace you can jazz up. Most of the protein on the menu comes precooked. So the team jazzes it up with homemade ingredients like green tomatillo sauce on a prepared enchilada. Fresh onions, garlic, basil, and parsley combine with commodity ground beef, and half the canned pasta sauce is replaced for fresh diced tomatoes.

The district plans to move into 2012 serving a new taste-tested dish, like the enchiladas, the noodles, or a chicken and butternut squash curry with Israeli couscous, about once a week.

What do you think?

Do you think kids react more to the calorie cap or to the different mix? If you were filling up on say, chicken nuggets and now you get less of those, you probably are miffed. If you happen to love more fresh veggies, you're probably giving the new regulations a good grade. What's your opinion?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.