Healthy lunches going down poorly

10/06/2012 12:00 AM

10/05/2012 10:49 PM

Outside Pittsburgh, they are proclaiming a strike, taking to Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. In a village near Milwaukee, hundreds staged a boycott. In a small farming and ranching community in western Kansas, they have produced a parody video. And in Parsippany, N.J., the protest is six days old and counting.

They are high school students, and their complaint is about lunch – healthier, smaller and more expensive than ever.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required public schools to follow new nutritional guidelines this academic year to get extra federal lunch aid, has created a nationwide version of the age-old parental challenge: persuading children to eat what is good for them.

Because the lunches must now include fruits and vegetables, those who clamor for more cheese-laden nachos may find string beans and a peach cup instead. Because of limits on fat and sodium, some of those who crave french fries get baked sweet-potato wedges. Because of calorie restrictions, meat and carbohydrate portions are smaller. Gone is 2 percent chocolate milk, replaced by skim.

"Before, there was no taste and no flavor," said Malik Barrows, a senior at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., who likes fruit but said his classmates threw away their mandatory helpings on the cafeteria floor. "Now there's no taste, no flavor and it's healthy, which makes it taste even worse."

Students organized lunch strikes in a Pittsburgh suburb, where in late August the hashtag "brownbagginit" was trending on Twitter, and outside Milwaukee, where the Mukwonago High School principal, Shawn McNulty, said lunch program participation had fallen 70 percent.

"There is a reduction in nacho chips, there is a reduction in garlic bread, but there's actually an increase in fruits and vegetables," McNulty said. "That's a tough sell for kids, and I would be grumbling, too, if I was 17 years old."

In New Jersey, more than 1,200 people have joined a Facebook group that urges Parsippany Hills High School students to boycott the school lunches.

The set lunch that cost $2.50 last year now costs $2.60. The cafeteria still offers pizza, french fries and chicken nuggets, but all of the servings have shrunk. And the packaged baby carrots and apples that each student must take before leaving the lunch line usually end up in the trash, said Brandon Faris, a boycott organizer.

"Everybody in the school's like, 'Have you seen the lunch prices? It's ridiculous!' " said Brandon, who derided a Chinese-themed lunch offered a week ago Friday, as a "bribe."

"The portion of the meal went down; the price should also go down."

According to the new restrictions, high school lunches must be no more than 850 calories, middle school lunches no more than 700 calories and elementary school lunches no more than 650. Before, there were no maximums.

At the same time, prices have gone up about 10 cents in many districts for students who do not qualify for free lunch, both to pay for fresh fruits and vegetables and to obey a federal requirement that lunch prices gradually increase to help cover their cost.

In New York City, where school officials introduced whole-wheat breads, low-fat milk and other changes several years ago, the most noticeable change this year is the fruit and vegetable requirement, which has resulted in some waste, according to Eric Goldstein, the Education Department official who oversees food services.

Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association, said food service directors were using a variety of strategies to get students to embrace the new menus, including asking teachers to discuss healthy food in class, conducting taste tests, handing out free samples and educating students about how their food is grown and made.

But the most effective strategy, several food service directors said, may simply be waiting. Research shows that children must be exposed to vegetables 10 to 12 times before they will eat them on their own, said William McCarthy, a public health and psychology profesor at UCLA.

"If our task is to get young kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, we have to be willing to put up with the waste," he said.

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