They can still remember the good old days — last year — when fried foods and pizza days were more abundant. Now, faced with healthier options including baked foods and fresh fruits and vegetables, some students are less enthusiastic about school lunches and many have begun bringing their own lunches, students and educators say.
Changes to the school lunch offerings were mandated by the federal government at the urging of first lady Michelle Obama. The changes made it to the lunch tables for the first time this fall, to the chagrin of some students who favor fatty, flavorful foods, but students aren’t the only ones displeased with the changes.
“This is a federal problem that they’re not getting enough calories,” said Rusty Mayfield, a football coach at Cleburne High School. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach and it doesn’t need to be.”
Mayfield and other educators take issue with the portion sizes and calorie caps associated with the new plan. They simply don’t provide enough food for some students, such as athletes or students whose only meals come from school cafeteria, Mayfield and others said.
The new requirements are specific. Schools must offer one ounce of protein at each lunch, they must offer one half cup of fruit daily and a variety of vegetables each week. Schools can no longer serve canned food and must serve beans or other legumes at least one weekly.
And, for the first time since the federal lunch program began, school nutritionists must adhere to precise portion sizes by age and a calorie cap — 850 calories per lunch for students in grades 9-12.
The new rules, which went into effect July 1, changed public school nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years. The changes developed by federal officials are intended to help tackle chronic health problems that are plaguing Americans and are associated with poor eating habits. While that is considerably lower than the rate for the adult population, public health officials are still trying to develop ways to combat obesity in children in the United States.
Nationwide, the obesity rate for adults stands at 35.7 percent and the obesity rate for youth is 17 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also according to the CDC, the adult population in Alabama and several other Southern states hovers above 30 percent.
While that is considerably lower than the rate for the adult population, public health officials are still trying to develop ways to combat obesity in children in the United States.
Still, students and some school officials are resistant to the change despite the fact that it is aimed at tackling the nation’s weight epidemic, which is particularly pronounced in the southeastern U.S.
Adjustments slow, but coming
While some students are staunchly against the changes, others are more accepting — even if it does mean fewer fries and leaner meals.
No longer do schools provide salt packets, oily dressings, fatty dairy products. Buns, cornbread and pizza crust are all whole-wheat.
“They’re not too happy with the whole-wheat bread in the lunchroom,” said Shane Cornutt, a ninth-grade English teacher at Saks High School. “Many of them complain about it, but they eat it.”
Students at Saks High School on a recent morning said they think the better food options are good, even though some of their classmates complain.
“I feel like in elementary school we had good lunches,” said senior Mitch Goodwin. “Middle school it just went down, but I feel like here the lunches are good."
According to the latest statistics from the CDC, 9 percent of Alabama’s high school students did not eat fruit or drink fruit juices within seven days of a survey aimed at monitoring state youths’ health habits. Ten percent ate no vegetables the week before the survey, and 20 percent of Alabama teens drank soda three or more times during the week before the survey.
Tables full of students at Saks Elementary discussed in detail which fruits and vegetables they like and dislike. Some picked up lean-meat barbecue sandwiches from the lunch line, some picked whole-wheat turkey wraps and some ate salads.
Saks and two other Calhoun County elementary schools implemented many of the new federal standards last spring as part of a pilot program. Others began serving whole-wheat offerings before the federal government established the requirement.
As a result, some of the students in earlier grades are already accustomed to healthier school lunches.
“It teaches them how to eat at an early age,” said Sonja Deno, a second-grade teacher at Saks. “All they drink is milk and water and they don’t ask for anything else.”
Deno, who has been teaching for seven years, said by now her young students are accustomed to eating healthier foods because it’s all they’ve known. But, she added, transitioning to healthier lunch options was more difficult when the transition began a few years ago.
Older students have been more reluctant to embrace the change.
School officials across the nation learned in March that they would have six months to implement the first federal changes to the nation’s school lunch program in 15 years. Nutritionists and lunch room mangers had to make changes, and fast before the July 1 deadline.
“I’m not sure there was a lot of thought about how it was going to work,” said Prince, who favors the healthier requirements, but found the added work overwhelming at times. “There was really no trial of this.”
Along with the new nutritional standards comes loads of paperwork for lunch room and nutrition directors at public schools. Each meal must be documented in detail before the start of the school week.
Prince’s computer contains dozens of documents that provide nutritional information about each serving that Anniston’s schools offer students. She’s not alone. Because of the new changes, school officials everywhere are compiling similar documentation.
The “meal pattern worksheets” detail the amount and source of protein, grains, fruits, dark green vegetables, red-orange vegetables, dry beans or peas, starchy vegetables, “other vegetables,” and “additional vegetables.”
Lunchroom employees are also making more food from scratch. They work longer hours to comply with the federal changes, in several area school systems.
Not all aspects of the new program have been popular, or easy. But some local school officials interviewed recently were convinced that they were good, and right for a state in a nation saddled with a weight epidemic.
“I think it’s better for the kids and they seem to like it better,” said Teri NeSmith, who heads up the lunchroom at Saks Elementary. “I can’t say it’s not been difficult but they’ve given us more hours for our employees.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star. Editor's note: This article has been modified to remove a quote that was misattributed to a local school official.