HEFLIN — Fewer students are buying lunch in the state’s school cafeterias, suggesting that students and their parents may be pushing back against changes in the kind of meals served.
The lunch program at Cleburne County Schools has seen a 29 percent decrease in student participation since the Alabama Department of Education tightened nutritional requirements, administrators there said.
There is no difference in free or reduced-price lunches, said Superintendent Claire Dryden, just in the amount of paid lunches. The biggest drop was at the high schools, she said.
The system served 106,362 lunches during the 2012-13 school year and 75,610 in the 2013-14 year, she said. But the decrease started in 2011-12, when new federal lunch program guidelines went into effect, Dryden said.
Maria Gilbert said her two older children, in the 11th and fifth grades this year, refuse to eat lunches prepared at their schools. Her kindergartner is “adjusting to the food.”
Her oldest said the food was “nasty,” and refused to eat it beginning about three years ago, Gilbert said.
“She went a good while without eating lunch and didn’t tell me,” she said.
Her fifth-grader also said the food was nasty and that there wasn’t enough to fill him up. They often stop at a fast-food restaurant after school if their kids do eat the school lunch, she said. The drive-through at McDonald’s is always full after school as Gilbert and other parents stop to feed their hungry children on the way home, she said.
It’s a problem Dryden recognizes.
“Many of the student athletes need four times more calories than an average school lunch provides and therefore are bringing their lunch,” Dryden said.
But, she said, the regulations don’t allow the school to tailor the meals to the student. However, she defends the taste of the lunches. The nutrition program staff works hard to provide the best meals they can, Dryden said. She ate lunch at Ranburne Elementary School on Tuesday, when the menu was French bread pizza, corn, tossed salad and an apple.
“It was a very good meal,” Dryden said. “Granted if you gave students a choice they would have preferred pizza from Pizza Hut. But any chain restaurant pizza would cost more than $2.25 and would not come close to meeting federal guidelines.”
The Alabama Department of Education ushered in the new guidelines to make sure children were eating healthier meals. However, participation in school lunch programs went down statewide in 2012-13. According to state Department of Education numbers there were 744,621 students enrolled in public schools in 2011-12. During that year, schools statewide sold 131.9 million meals. In 2012-13 there were 744,637 students enrolled and schools sold 127.1 million meals sold.
The number of meals sold each year has bounced up and down slightly since the 2008-09 school year, but the 2012-13 school was the lowest of them all, and more than 4 million lower than the next-lowest total. Those numbers do not include after-school snacks sold. More recent numbers were not available on the website.
Attempts to reach the representatives of the department for comment last week were unsuccessful.
The food may be healthy, but if the kids won’t eat it, it doesn’t matter, said Gilbert. Her older kids started taking lunches to school, things like macaroni and cheese, cans of spaghetti and microwaveable meals, Gilbert said. But last week, the microwaves were removed from the lunch room because the students were not cleaning them after use, Gilbert said.
Wednesday, her oldest took a single serving bag of Doritos and a plastic cup of fruit cocktail for lunch, she said. She’s not sure how she is going to handle the lunches now that the microwaves have been removed, Gilbert said.
“Anything that doesn’t need to be warmed,” Gilbert said.