USDA makes looser lunch rules permanent, Grand Forks area students still hungry

"It seems to me that we're getting a lot less food than we used to," said Emily Heffernan, a senior at East Grand Forks Senior High School. "Most kids are still starving after lunch."...

A student goes through the lunch line with their meal at Central High School
A student goes through the lunch line with their meal at Central High School in Grand Forks on Friday. Herald Staff Photo by Charly Haley.

"It seems to me that we're getting a lot less food than we used to," said Emily Heffernan, a senior at East Grand Forks Senior High School. "Most kids are still starving after lunch."

Across the river at Grand Forks Central High School, senior Reed Zabinski expressed the same sentiment: "The only way you get enough is if you buy extra."

Many students in the area echo that sentiment.

It was similar complaints around the nation that caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture to loosen up rules on school lunches it had put into place in 2012. On Friday, the USDA made those looser rules permanent.

Several school leaders and nutritionists in the region applauded the change, but students are still complaining.


Rules changed

The original federal rules were meant to help curb obesity and, the USDA said, they were based on the recommendations of doctors and nutritionists.

According to a 2012 USDA memo, the rules identify "healthy ranges for five categories of food -- fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or meat alternatives, and fluid milk -- as well as healthy ranges for total calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium." Schools that adhere to the standards will continue to get reimbursed for school meals.

Soon after the rules went into effect, students around the nation complained of hunger.

They even wrote their senators.

At one point, the office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., got a letter from a sixth grade class in Lison, N.D. It said: "I'm sure that you get the amount of food that you want, so why can't we? I'm sure that you don't starve during the day like us. We think you could change this by convincing the other senators about this issue. We need this change soon, and this is very important.... We know you will do your best to help us with this problem."

Hoeven used it as part of a campaign to win enough bipartisan votes for a bill to force the USDA to change the rules. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is a co-sponsor.

There was never a vote though because the department chose to voluntarily loosen the rules.


The loose rules puts a weekly limit on meat and grains instead of a daily limit such that excess meat in Monday's lunch can be made up with less meat in Friday's lunch.

"There's still an emphasis on good health, making sure we're fighting obesity, but also giving nutritionists flexibility," Hoeven said Thursday.

He also criticized the way the old standards had the same limits on meat and grains for all students in Grades K-9, which, he said, meant a ninth grader has the same limits as a much younger, much smaller child. The same was true for high-school-age students, he said.

Heitkamp, the daughter of a school cook, weighed in as well.

"It's crucial that we make sure our kids are given healthy meals at school so they are ready to learn each day," she said in a news release. "But we also need to give flexibility to schools, especially those in rural areas, to enable them to provide nutritious meals without excessive restrictions."

Schools respond

Hillsboro (N.D.) Schools Superintendent Paula Pederson said her school has made adjustments with nutrition rules changing, such as the school district paying for seconds for students and the addition of an unlimited salad bar.

"Elementary students use the salad bar more while the older kids want bulk that they can eat in the least amount of time," she said. "We've made big strides from when our football players thought they would starve."


Julie Tunseth, the Grand Forks Public Schools child nutrition food services director, called the USDA rule change a "good, common-sense change."

"It keeps the integrity of the program as far as making healthy choices," she said. "It's hard to get the minimum calories up with just fruits and vegetables.

"It's a good change because it still keeps integrity in the mission of improving nutrition in young children, but also gives us flexibility in menu planning and what kids want to eat."

Still complaining

At Central High, seniors Zabinski, Maddie Comeau and Lizzy Dorner all agreed that they still don't get enough to eat for lunch, which they also say isn't very appealing.

"The portions are OK, they're not terribly awful," Dorner said. "It's the quality."

The food was better when she was a freshman, she said. The school is trying to make lunch healthier, she said, but lunch is not as good, though it's better this year than junior year.

"The fruits and vegetables aren't fresh," said Comeau, who brings her own lunch.


East Grand Forks senior Heffernan said she, too, has seen a decline in quality. "In my freshman year, I had no problem with school lunch, but it's steadily gotten worse, mostly regarding quality. Students joke that we're going to strike lunch."

Classmate Eddie Eades said portion size has shrunk since his freshman year. "There's less food with the entrée and more of a focus on the side stuff. I basically get an extra entrée every day."

Heffernan said it got worse this year when the deli closed two months into the school year. "If you didn't get enough to eat with the regular lunch, you'd go to the deli," she said.

Eating right

Karen Pickett, the East Grand Forks School District's food service director, said her menu carries the maximum calories allowed by the federal standards. The problem, she said, is that high school students are hungry because don't eat the cup's worth of fruits and the cup's worth of vegetables that are available to them at school lunch.

"There's no reason for kids to be hungry," she said. "The problem is that they're only taking the entrée. If they have two to three slices of pizza, they aren't hungry.

"But to have a well-balanced meal, they should be taking it all."

In contrast, Pickett said, elementary students partake in the fruits and salads offered.


"Change takes time," she said.

Call Bakken at (701) 780-1125, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1125 or send email to . Herald Staff Writer Charly Haley contributed to this report.

What To Read Next
Get Local