Healthy school lunches: Some like it, some stay hungryIn area schools, elementary school students rave over salads, but high schol students complain there’s not enough to eat.
By: Jennifer Johnson, Grand Forks Herald
A group of West Elementary third graders recently had no problem naming their favorite lunchtime food: “Salad!”
As the federal overhaul to school lunches continues to get skewered by students nation-wide, popping up recently in a YouTube parody and commentary by Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” local students are divided over a change that’s piled more fruits and vegetables onto their plates.
Nutrition rules under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are simple, but strict: less sodium, less sugar and whole grains for everything from pasta to muffins to help combat childhood obesity. Schools must also limit the number of calories students can consume — elementary school lunches, for instance, must contain between 550 and 650 calories.
The new requirements have also created some challenge organizing meals, as there are even limits on grains and proteins, said Julie Tunseth, director of child nutrition for Grand Forks Public Schools.
“If I know I’m low on calories, I can’t put another whole grain slice of bread or cup of pasta on there, but I can put a Jell-O or pudding or ice cream treat,” she said. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Area high school students felt the new meals weren’t enough, sparking a petition signed by 204 students at Red River High School protesting the food.
Tunseth, who received the petition Friday, said a letter written by a junior at the school stated students were still hungry.
“We are all active with after-school activities and don’t eat until we come home for dinner,” it stated.
Tunseth noted that while students can leave the campus for a $5 fast food meal and feel full, the goal is for them to feel satisfied.
“They’re actually getting more food this year than last year, but it’s in the fruit and vegetable form,” she said.
The student, whose identity was not revealed to the Herald because of privacy concerns, also wrote that if they have smaller meals with fewer carbohydrates, proteins and calories, they shouldn’t have to pay as much as they have for larger meals in the past.
For $3.50, students can get two sub sandwiches, a bag of baked potato chips, an 8-ounce milk and four half-cups of fruit and vegetables, she said.
“I don’t know if they can go anywhere else and get that much food for $3.50,” she said.
The cost of meals this year has stayed the same, despite rising food costs. If the school meets all of the guidelines, it receives 6 cents more in federal reimbursement for every student meal, which doesn’t buy much, said Tunseth.
She and Principal Kris Arason are meeting with a few students today to listen to their concerns and inform them what the new requirements are.
“After reading the letters, I think they don’t understand what they can take,” she said.
Superintendent Larry Nybladh said the intent behind the new requirements is noble, though there will always be some who feel a one-size-fits-all mandate isn’t adequate.
“I think schools across the country are going to be experiencing feedback from students, and I would hope the federal government would take that feedback into consideration,” he said.
A similar situation happened at a high school in Bagley, Minn., where about 95 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 packed their lunch one day at the beginning of the year. The high school, which has about 500 students, does not allow students to eat off campus.
“They chose that day to protest,” said Superintendent Steve Cairns. “They got their point across, and those kids are also writing some letters to federal legislators and encouraging others that if they want to see change, they need to contact the right people to do so.”
The school decided to offer barbecues and other items a la carte at a cheap cost, such as 10 cents for a peanut butter sandwich that free- and reduced-lunch students can also afford.
“We found that that has worked for those kids, that it put the choice back in for them,” he said. “And it seems to be working pretty good.”
At West Elementary last week, a group of third-graders welcomed the food, which is being used as a learning tool, said Principal Ali Parkinson.
“I love this stuff,” said Adara Fish, 8.
For lunch that day, children had the choice of a chef’s salad or a small stack of whole grain pancakes and two turkey sausage links. The chef’s salad included one full cup of romaine lettuce mixed with spinach, vegetables, three pieces of gordita bread, one hardboiled egg, shredded cheese and a dollop of ranch dressing.
Fish was happily eating her pancakes, with syrup included, and wasn’t interested in more sugar. All four students sitting by her agreed they didn’t miss it.
“Sugar doesn’t keep you full,” said Carson Ohnstad, 9. “When you used to have lots of sugar, you would get really silly and get in trouble.”
“It makes you crash,” added Adara Fish, 8.
In addition to the main meal, students could each have a total of four small cups of vegeta-bles and fruit, a new initiative started this year, said school cook Debbie Watts.
A far cry from the “blob of hot dish” she ate as a child, meals at school today differentiate from those decades ago because they offer more choice. Daily alternatives at West Elemen-tary School include a sandwich that uses butter made from sunflower seeds and “breakfast for lunch” — cereal, granola, yogurt and a cheese stick — offered for the first time this year.
Digging into his salad, Ohnstad said they ate cheese sticks and chicken strips last year, but he likes this better.
“This is more healthy and they give you more stuff with it,” he said.
Healthy food has been on the agenda at Grand Forks Public Schools for some time, so the change wasn’t as dramatic, said Tunseth.
Sarrah McDonald, whose son Tristan attends West Elementary, said she’s never packed lunches for him or her 12-year-old daughter.
“The schools have always offered a wonderful variety that I’ve never felt a need to,” she said. “It’s nice knowing that at home, they get healthy home-cooked foods and at school, they get pretty much the same quality.”
Changes in the classroom
Although it’s too early to judge the complete effectiveness of the program, students at West Elementary say it’s made a difference in their day. They feel like they’ll never get sick, said Fish.
“We feel much healthier and play more sports a lot easier, and not run out of energy or anything,” said Ohnstad.
Some proof can also be found in the number of students who pack their lunch, which has reduced by half since the program started this year, said Watts. Rose Narloch, third grade teacher at West Elementary, noted students get excited about selecting their lunch in the morning.
“I just feel like with less carbs (at lunch), they’re less lethargic than they were before,” she said.
Curbing student hunger before lunch is a fruit or vegetable snack three days a week, a program started last year at West to introduce produce they might not be familiar with. Eleven elementary schools in Grand Forks have the program.
“I think the culture has been really supportive in Grand Forks to make these healthy changes,” said Tunseth. “It’s really making small steps every day, and they’ve been doing it for years.”
Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.