Report: 63% of Students Say New Healthy School Lunches ‘Tolerable’

A new report out from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization focused on improving public health, found that most high school students find the new healthier school lunches “tolerable”.

The study found that 63% of the students surveyed at least somewhat liked the new lunch options.  Director of food service for Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, New York, Susan Birmingham, said it took some time, but students are beginning to enjoy the new lunch options.

“This year, I have to say, except for the spaghetti, they were accepting it and they were willing to try some of the new vegetables,” says Birmingham, who has worked for food service in the district for more than 40 years.

New federal requirements to make school lunches healthier took effect in 2012 as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed in 2010.  Schools must comply with the new regulations in order to continue receiving reimbursement of lunch money from the government.

The USDA passed even more regulations in 2013, including Smart Snacks in Schools, which restrict the snack items a school district may sell based on fat, calories, sugar and sodium.  The new restrictions went into effect this week.

The new guidelines state that school lunches must meet certain lower sugar, fat and sodium levels.   More fruits and vegetables must be incorporated, and breads must be whole grain.

The whole-grain requirement has posed problems in many schools, where the taste is so different from what kids are used to that many students are not choosing to eat it, causing the Department of Agriculture to actually loosen the requirements pertaining to pasta, writes Alexandra Pannoni for US News.

“It was awful, just awful. The kids really had an uproar over it,” says Birmingham about a 100% whole-wheat pasta she once served. The pasta was a huge issue, she says, because it is one of her biggest sellers.

Other schools around the country are seeing much larger issues concerning the new guidelines causing them to forgo the federal reimbursement of free and reduced lunches in order to avoid the new restrictions.

The Douglas County School District in Colorado had its board approve a motion that would allow all nine of the district’s high schools to opt out of the National School Lunch Program after hearing the lunch options being called “unappealing” and “dissatisfying”, writes Yesenia Robles for The Denver Post.

With about 6% of the students needing free and reduced lunches, the district expects to lose about $167,000.

“I think what we are providing in our district already is healthy,” said board president Kevin Larsen. “There needs to be a balance of nutrition with things that will actually be consumed and eaten.”

Schools in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, are choosing to forgo the federal funding as well, causing the district to lose $200,000 this year, and as much as $260,000 in upcoming years, reports Andrew Setters for WLWT.

Superintendent Gene Kirchner believes the cost is worth it as the healthier options are causing more students to bring their own lunch or travel off-campus for lunch.  Those that do get lunch from the schools do not necessarily eat it all.

“We watch children every day walk past the cash register and then throw away things that we are forced, have forced them to take essentially, as a result of the federal requirements for lunches … There’s no guarantee that the things they bring from home are healthier, or that if they stop by the minute market on the way to school and what they grabbed at that point is a healthier option,” Kirchner said.

The district is currently planning a new menu that will feature healthier options than they offered in the past, but will not be as restrictive as the federal regulations.

Similar outcomes are being seen in the Onondaga County schools in New York State after a vote by the board of education resulted in a decision to drop out of the federal program, according to Sarah Moses for website Syracuse.com.

The decision was reached after witnessing similar reactions to the new lunch choices, in many cases watching students walk directly from the lunch line to the trash can to throw away portions of their lunch before even sitting down.

Opting out gives the schools the flexibility to bring back favorite meals that were fairly healthy to begin with, such as soup, which was not allowed under the new restrictions due to its high sodium content.  The question will be whether the schools can afford it.

“It’s an experiment for sure,” Brian Wright, Food Service Director for Baldwinsville, said. “I know other schools are thinking about doing this and they are watching what happens here.”