For some students, lunch isn’t exactly the most tasteful part of the day.
Rachel Collard, a sophomore, and Katelyn Henrickson, a freshman, both had the pizza from the school cafeteria at Herkimer Junior-Senior High School on Friday, and both had a similar reaction.
“They could be better,” said Collard about the school lunches overall. “They could definitely be better. The pizza we had today was gross.”
“I don’t like it,” said Henrickson, who had the pizza with the whole-grain crusts, along with Oreo pudding and vegetables mixed with carrots, celery and cucumbers.
“I don’t feel full,” she added.
Since fall 2012, districts have had to abide by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for school meals, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, calling for more vegetables and fruit as well as calorie limits by grade level and sodium targets.
But it hasn’t been all gravy, as some school districts have struggled with the higher costs of the approved food, lack of student participation and simply figuring out what can and can’t be served.
“Everything is a work in progress,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, School Nutrition Association spokesperson. “We’re seeing schools doing a lot of experimenting and making adjustments to their menus to make sure kids are liking the healthier options and really encouraging them to try new things.”
The school can only do so much, though. Educators hope the program will teach the students good habits that they can take home if not already enforced by their parents.
“The healthier the kids are in their diets and in their physical activity, the better they’re prepared to focus and sit down in class,” Pratt-Heavner said.
“I understand the intent with the strict guidelines, but you lose the flexibility it needs,” said Mary Tomaso, who is in her first year as principal at Herkimer Jr.-Sr. High School.
Tomaso pointed out a sign in the school’s cafeteria which states seventh and eighth graders can have a half cup of fruit and ninth through 12th graders are allowed a whole cup, in accordance with the guidelines.
“Middle school students would probably like more fruit choices,” she said.
Tomaso served as assistant principal at Herkimer Elementary School when the guidelines were first enacted during the previous school year, which also required students take a certain portion of vegetables with every meal.
“In my experience, when kids have to take certain items even when they don’t want them, I think that it’s wasteful because it’s not going to be eaten at all,” she said.
Page 2 of 3 - Pauline Williams said, as school lunch manager at Dolgeville Central School, she has found that students don’t mind sharing their thoughts about some of the selections.
“’What is this?’” she said, quoting some of the things she’s heard students say.
Williams said it took some experimenting to see what the students at her school will eat that coincides with the new guidelines, particularly the vegetable servings. She said fried beans turned out to be a favorite, so she serves that with burritos.
Williams said there was a noticeable difference in customers when the guidelines were first put into place last year.
“Participation dropped. Drastically dropped,” she said.
Williams said she distributed a survey to students to better understand what they like and don’t like, with chicken being among the favorites for students and fish among the least favorite.
Williams said she now rotates six dishes that she knows works with the students that are also within the guidelines.
“It’s a little easier this year than it was last year,” she said.
Nearly two weeks into the new school year, now, Williams said sales seem to be picking up, which she believes is partially due to the addition of a salad bar.
“I can have a bigger portion with the salad bar,” said Joslin Null, a junior at Dolgeville high school. She said last year, as an athlete who would be going to games and practices, she didn’t feel full from the lunches she bought at the school.
Null also said about the salad bar, “I think it’s good because kids like salad and it’s healthy for them.”
Aaron Hall, a freshman, said, “I don’t like the lunches. That’s why I bring mine in.”
When asked if there was something he does like, classmate Katelyn Robotham answered and said, “The salads.”
“And the cheese sticks. And the calzones,” he said.
Schools can choose to opt out of the national program, but a summer survey from the School Nutrition Association showed that 92.7 percent of school nutrition directors have no plans to drop out. Those who did would lose school lunch funds reimbursed by the government.
Dolgeville Central School District Superintendent Christine Reynolds said opting out is not something her school district can afford to do, with 50 percent of the students using the free or reduced meal plans, with about 25 percent of those students living at or below the poverty line.
Trials and regulations
Nationally, 33 million American children are served each day through the school lunch program, about 1.5 million in New York State, said USDA Under Secretary Kevin Cocannon. “These are the first major changes in decades in the meal requirements.”
Page 3 of 3 - They include age-adjusted calorie limits and reductions in saturated fats, trans fat and sodium. Though experts agree the end goal is important, the transition has been a process.
“It was a disaster last year,” said Tom Pfisterer, director of school food services for Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES.
Serving 12 local districts, the BOCES normally serves about 6,200 lunches daily. After the changes that number dropped to 5,200 last year, Pfisterer said.
“The guidelines were so prohibitive and restrictive that we lost student customers,” he said. “Anything that would make a young kid excited about buying lunch was basically removed.”
The two biggest issues were that the recommended protein requirements were insufficient for middle and high school students, as were the grain requirements, Cocannon said.
“They were too limiting so we made an adjustment partway through the year and said schools may increase the grains and the proteins as long as they don’t exceed the calorie limits,” he said.
The USDA encouraged schools to practice “offer versus serve,” giving students choices as they move through the line.
“There’s no point in having a fabulous menu if nobody eats it,” Cocannon said. “It’s human nature. If I make a choice there’s a much higher likelihood that I’m going to consume the food.”