FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Changes in the school lunch program have been obvious this year — portions are smaller as cafeteria workers implement new federal guidelines.
But some students are leaving their school lunch table hungry, that is, if they buy lunch at all.
New federal guidelines intended to address increasing childhood obesity levels went into effect this school year. The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served to low-income children. Those meals have always been subject to nutritional guidelines because they are partially paid for by the federal government, but the new rules put broader restrictions on what could be served after childhood obesity rates skyrocketed.
School kids can still buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Congress two years ago directed USDA to regulate those foods as well, but the department has yet to issue those rules.
Under the new guidelines, 30 percent of the students' calories for the week can be consumed from fat. Daily consumption is not to exceed 650 calories for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and 850 calories for students in grades ninth through 12th.
The new plan sets limits on calories, salt and sugar, and phases in more whole grains. There are no white bread products, only wheat and grain. Salt has been drastically cut with more cuts promised for 2013.
Some school officials have noticed a decrease in the number of students who buy lunch from school cafeterias.
"We've certainly lost participation in our (food) program this year," said Angie Datuin, the child nutrition director for Colbert County schools. "It's not as significant as I'd feared, but the numbers are definitely down."
Child nutrition programs are self-sustaining, meaning a program's success depends on children purchasing meals at school. Datuin said when students don't purchase meals over time, the program suffers because it does not receive as high a reimbursement.
Between lower meal sales, food costs being significantly higher and the sharp increase in paperwork just to meet government requirements, times are tougher than ever for school nutrition programs, according to child nutrition officials.
Still, the same complaints from students are steady, child nutrition directors said.
"Even though the food is healthier, it's a whole new eating pattern for kids and quite honestly, the food doesn't taste the same," said Myra Hickman, Child Nutrition Program director for Florence City Schools. "With salt and fat restrictions, we can't season the food the way traditional Southern food is seasoned. That would be fine except for the fact that we're still serving Southern students who don't eat this way. The result is a whole lot of food going in the garbage."
Food costs are higher, too, because fresh fruits and vegetables, which the government is mandating more of, are costly. Schools must offer at least one vegetable and fruit per meal.
Hickman said that while she and her counterparts in other Shoals districts agree that healthier menus are always better, if students aren't eating, then school efforts are in vain.
"The bottom line is school food isn't the culprit in childhood obesity and never has been," Hickman said. "Fast food and meals outside of school as well as a general lack of exercise are the contributors. Also, when our guidelines changed for schools, food stamp (dietary) guidelines didn't, so that's a factor as well when only schools are forced to make the drastic changes."
Child Nutrition Program directors said they are concerned about the amount of food students receive as well.
"These guidelines aren't set up to feed a 200-pound, 6 foot 3 inch football player, nor an 80-pound young child for that matter," Hickman said.
Madison Jimerson, a 10th-grader at Colbert Heights High School, said she has noticed the changes in the school food and describes the food as "much simpler."
"There's less of it for sure, but if I don't get full I sometimes just go back and get a granola bar," she said. "I personally like having more fruit because I play sports and I know it's a lot healthier. There's still a lot of kids that don't like any of these changes."
Until this week, cafeteria workers could not allow more than 2 ounces of meat at a meal. It means measuring and weighing food and pre-proportioning the food. Add to that the additional expense for purchasing food containers to hold the set portions for students.
Congress, after being bombarded with complaints from school administrators and parents saying their children weren't getting enough to eat, worked with the USDA to relax the rules and there is no longer a maximum limit on grains and meat. But school programs still must comply with the calorie ranges by grade as well as the saturated fat and nutrient requirements.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he was willing to do away with those limits mainly because school administrators have repeatedly said it is too restrictive in planning daily meals.
It wouldn't be the first time Congress has intervened with USDA guidelines. In 2011, Congress prohibited USDA from limiting potatoes and French fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.
Barbara Gean, the cafeteria manager at Central School said it has been a challenge to find all new recipes and acceptable ways to cook foods so students will eat.
"I've been at this since 1985 and we've never had such restrictions," she said. "We're accustomed to certain recipes that we know the kids enjoy and now we're having to make substitutions. We've always cooked what the kids like but we can't do that now."
While the majority of students serve themselves in their school lunchrooms, cafeteria workers have to keep a heightened vigilance on how much food the students are getting. They provide half-cup utensils for serving most foods.
"No one wants it to be like this," Gean said. "We want the kids to enjoy themselves during the time they're with us in the lunchroom, but I just don't know how enjoyable it can be now with all these restrictions."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/