Is that a rumbling in your tummy or just grumbling in the school yard?

School lunch has never been such a hot topic for parents on the sidelines as it has been this fall.

Everywhere I turn, from my son’s football games, to Facebook to standing in line at the grocery store, the topic of the new school lunch standards seems to trickle into the conversation.

“I’m starving when I come home,” one Rogers High School soccer player told me as he begged his mom to take him to Subway even after already having dinner.

“If you try to take two kinds of fruit, they tell you to put one back,” one of my kids told me. A neighbor reported a tale about a student who took 5 too many grapes at Rogers Middle School and the lunch lady took them off his plate and threw them in the garbage.

High school parents have mentioned they now pack their seniors a lunch, something they haven’t done since elementary school. So impassioned by the changes, a student driven Facebook and Twitter campaign drove hundreds of Rogers High School students to stage a “hot lunch boycott” Friday, Sept. 14.

With the new federal standards now in place, school lunches have a different look to them. Ultimately, the goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) changes are to create healthier lunches for students.

According to the American Heart Association, among children ages 2-19, about 1 in 3 are overweight and 1 in 6 are considered obese.

I’m pretty sure most people would agree those are statistics we would like to see improve. But at what cost to kids who are already healthy?

In addition to requiring students to eat more fruits and vegetables, the new standards include age-appropriate calorie limits as well as reductions in saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. Under these changes, students will notice changes to serving sizes in meats, grain/bread and the fat-free or low-fat milk options.

At first glance, I think most of us would say, “Well what’s wrong with that?”

So let’s take a closer look. Since most of the complaints I’ve heard are from students or parents at middle or high school, let’s focus on those grades.

Middle school: The calorie regulations for middle school students have decreased from 825 to between 600 and 700. Meat or meat alternatives have decreased from a minimum of two ounces a day to a maximum of nine to 10 ounces a week. Grain and bread have been reduced from a minimum of 15 ounces a week to a maximum of eight to 10 ounces a week, half must be whole grain.

High school: For high school students, calorie regulations have decreased from a minimum of 825 to 750 to 850. Meat or meat alternative servings will be limited to 10 to 12 ounces per week. Hamburger and chicken patties and five meatballs or chicken nuggets are all two ounces of meat. A slice of cheese adds a half-ounce to the selection. The school lunch folks have a whole chart of equivalents to refer to meet these standards.

Personally, I am all for creating healthy alternatives. Other parents may have an issue with that feeling as though government is infringing on their rights.

As someone who has been on a weight loss journey this year, I have traded pasta for zucchini and chips for cucumbers. With 60 pounds lost and counting, I have learned what works for me. But everyone is different.

While public schools are filled with a diverse group of students of all shapes, body sizes, activity levels and health issues, the program is a one-size-fits-all approach.

For example, if your son happens to be a football player or your daughter happens to be on the dance team, they could be burning anywhere from 300 to 1,100 calories during practice. These kids may or may not eat breakfast, then head into lunch where they get 550-850 calories. After school they go directly to practice. If they don’t bring a snack from home, they are running on a severe caloric deficit.

For me, an 850-calorie meal would spell disaster, but I’m an adult trying to lose weight. These athletic kids are typically healthy and really do need more calories.

In fact, in their latest guidelines revised in 2010, the USDA states the caloric needs for teen girls is 1,800 to 2,400 calories depending on whether they are sedentary or active. For teen boys caloric guidelines are 2,200 -3,200 calories.

If one were to split their calories evenly between three meals (with no snacks) teen girls should be eating 600-800 calories per meal. Teen boys should be eating 734-1067 calories per meals. Most teen girls and sedentary boys are probably just squeaking by as the lunch standard’s calorie limits for all students are 600-700 for middle school and 750-850 for high school. But it’s apparent why they may now come home wanting a snack.

Teen boys who have normal to active lifestyles have a little more to complain about considering they are running a larger deficit. In serving up new caloric limits with the new school lunch standards the USDA has effectively contradicted their latest caloric guidelines for these kids. What’s the sense in that?

The new lunch standards are indeed placing a bigger responsibility on families to rethink their lifestyles. Kids who are not traditionally breakfast eaters may find they need to force something down so they aren’t starving by day’s end. Parents who work may not have time to make a complete breakfast every day, help plan an after school snack, help pack a cold lunch or make sure healthy cold lunch options are on hand consistently. I think many students and parents were caught off guard by this.

Furthermore, kids that come home starving make a beeline for the pantry. In our house, dinner hour has moved up to about 4:30 with a snack later on.

But what about the kids whose parents can’t be there right after school or can’t afford fresh produce (eating healthy can be expensive), or just don’t know that much about nutrition themselves?

As one Jackson Middle School student from Champlin told me, “When I go home after school I’m so hungry I literally eat the fridge.”

If that fridge is filled with fruits and vegetables that isn’t so terrible but if that fridge is full of cake, watch out. As someone who has been there and is battling back from it, obese individuals who haven’t consciously taken on the decision to change their habits will probably go for the cake and end up eating too much of it too. So the fatter may end up getting fatter and the athletic may end up getting too lean.

In this sense, I think the new lunch standards may well backfire as one of the tenants of proper eating is to space out your calories and never let yourself get so hungry you are starving and tempted to make bad decisions.

Another way to battle this issue is to allow students to buy a second entrée or items from the ala carte menu. But that frustrates parents in Rogers because school lunch prices went up this year.

“We are paying more money for our kids to eat less food,” said Rogers resident Laura Selken. Elk River Area School District charges $2.50 for a secondary school lunch. That is higher than St. Michael-Albertville School District ($2.35); Osseo School District ($2.25-$2.35); and Anoka-Hennepin School District ($2.25). However, they are still cheaper than Hopkins School District ($2.90-$3.15) or Wayzata School District ($2.85).

Another issue with the new lunch standards is the fruits and vegetables requirement. Students must take at least a one-cup of fruits and one-cup of vegetables. At Rogers High School, students are not allowed to take more. Meanwhile Pattie Duenow, assistant director of child nutrition programs at Anoka-Hennepin School District says they allow students to take unlimited fruits and vegetables. I’ve heard reports from Wayzata School District students that they are allowed unlimited fruits and veggies too.

“Fruits and vegetables have very few calories,” she said. “We want kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.”

They aren’t throwing away grapes there. Why the discrepancy?

Sodexo General Manager Julee Miller, who executes Elk River Area School District’s lunch program for Rogers High School is adamant they must follow the standards or be in jeopardy. She says their hands are tied.

Miller said the undersecretary of the USDA specifically said schools are not allowed to change caloric standards for athletes or pregnant teens.

Miller does say they offer 12 different fruits and vegetables a day and part of the issue is just dealing with the change.

Duenow says they carefully follow the standards including the calorie limits.

“Some kids are reluctant to take what they are allowed to take,” said Miller. “We are strongly encouraging them.”

Since it’s been 15 years since the last school lunch overhaul, I suspect school families will have a long time to chew the fat over this one. In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a run on deli meat at the local grocery store.

  • Reggie

    I think you stated the situation very well. So often even the best of intentions from our leaders in government, no matter their party affilliation, seem to think that we must have put in place these set standards and everyone must be judged within those same standards with no exceptions. this is of course not just limited to lunch at school, but how we measure student performance in the classroom, how we measure almost anything in our world these days seems to have a mandated standard that should not be over or under a certain mark. Personally, I’d take what you have so brilliantly shared here and send this note to your senators, to the White House, and make the very same point you did in this post. Best of continued success with your weight loss efforts, my dear wife who I will treasure forever has always struggled being overweight and I don’t quite know how to help since I’ve always been at or just a few pounds over what is considered the, wait for it, standard.

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