Schools see mixed reviews of new lunch menu

Smaller portions, types of food served in healthier lunches appeal to fewer students

 

NEW MENU: New federal lunch menu regulations for K-12 schools went into effect for the 2012-13 school year. Schools have seen a mixed response from students to the new food options.

By Lauren Fitch and Martin Slagter

Pioneer Staff Writers

 

BIG RAPIDS – Chippewa Hills High School senior Jason Peacock will be the first to tell you his poor diet cost him a shot at being an all-state wrestler.

After capturing a regional championship at 140 pounds as a junior, Peacock said he continued to struggle with eating right in an effort to make weight. Leading up to matches, he would hold off on eating large portions of food and weigh everything he put into his body.

He continued to “ride the rollercoaster” as it is referred to among members of the wrestling team — eating large portions of food after making weight and coming back to practice needing to cut a significant amount of weight once again before the next match.

“I’ll admit that my diet wasn’t very good last year,” he said. “I was eating good before the season, but once the season started I started literally weighing all my food in small portions on a plate. I would barely eat or drink anything until after the weigh-in. Afterward, I would eat a lot and weigh a lot more than I should.”

Peacock, who lost just twice the entire season, was defeated in both of his matches at the state finals and failed to place. He used those defeats as motivation for his senior season and sees new school lunch guidelines as a positive influence for both athletes and non-athletes alike.

Going into effect for the 2012-13 school year, new federal guidelines for school lunches under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have helped Peacock make better decisions about his eating habits. The federal government is enforcing more specific regulations on portion sizes, the number of calories available to students in a week, the number of servings and types of fruits and vegetables available and the quality of grains, meat and dairy products served for school lunches.

“It helps the average student out a lot, as well (as athletes),” Peacock said. “If you don’t eat the right things, your body isn’t going to function the way you need it to.”

Chippewa Hills wrestling coach Nate Ethridge said maintaining good eating habits during the season is essential. Prior to the start of the season, Ethridge speaks with his team about having a proper diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins like chicken.

“Obviously you don’t want them eating two slices of greasy pizza every day with chips and a 280-calorie Gatorade,” he said. “Educating them about how to eat properly is a big part of what we do.”

While the school lunch options satisfy most wrestlers, the number of lunches sold at area school districts shows not all students like the new menu.

HEALTHY CHOICES: Big Rapids High School student Hunter Jacobs fills his tray from the salad bar at lunch. Students are required to take a fruit or vegetable as part of their federally-approved school lunches. (Pioneer photos/Lauren Fitch)

Crossroads Charter Academy is the only district to see an overall increase in the number of lunches served at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year compared to last year. Chippewa Hills School District would not respond to requests for information on its number of lunches sold.

Schools are reimbursed with federal funds for each federally-approved meal served. In the past, a school lunch consisted of three foods from five main food groups: grain, meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Students still select three-out-of-five, but now one of their choices must be a fruit or vegetable.

Lunches are limited to about 850 calories for high school students, 700 calories for seventh and eighth graders and 650 calories for K-5 students. Food service staff can provide a higher-calorie meal one day, but they must counteract it by serving fewer calories another day that week in order to reach a weekly limit on calories served to students.

With the school lunch portions similar in calories to what Ethridge recommends his athletes eat before practice, schools are on the right track. Ultimately, he said, it’s up to the student-athlete to make the right choices every day.

“You have to be disciplined and understand what it means to eat right while maintaining weight the proper way,” he said. “They want to make weight and eat whatever they want. It turns into a bad formula.”

While wrestlers typically need to keep their calorie intake low, senior Devin Esch said he feels like school lunches provide ample nourishment with one small exception.

“I think the amount of milk is too small,” he said. “Normally you get enough food to hold you over for the rest of the day, but they only give you a small thing of milk. I think that should be bigger.”

More than anything, Esch said, the guidelines provide students and athletes alike with the idea of healthy eating.

“I think it gives kids the idea of (proper) eating,” he said. “Last year, we had a lot of junk food, and that’s all a lot of people ate. They make you get fruit, which will help you throughout the day and for when you go to practice. It’s healthier than it was before.”

Made-to-order subs are an option for lunch every day at Big Rapids High School.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which carries out policy set by the Health Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, the new menu intends to give students the energy they need to learn and be physically active while reducing their risk of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. The regulations are based on “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and input from the Institute of Medicine, an independent panel of experts on health, nutrition, school food service and economics.

The USDA recommends encouraging students to take extra servings of fruits and vegetables if they still are hungry at lunch and using spices and low-sodium sauces to add flavor to the healthier versions of entrees. Other suggestions include educating students on food preparation, giving students ample time to eat their lunches and holding recess before lunch so they work up more of an appetite.

Bob King, food services director for Big Rapids Public Schools, said the main complaint he’s heard about the new menu this school year is that the portions are not big enough for high school students.

Initially, younger students were generating more waste at their lunchtimes, he said, throwing away the fruits and vegetables they are required to take. Now students are eating more of the healthy sides – partially because they’ve realized the other food is served in smaller portions and they need to fill up on fruits and vegetables, King added. The middle school has adjusted well to the new menu, though a few students would like more food.

At the middle and high school, students can purchase an additional entree for just $1 more. They also can take as many fruits and vegetables as they like.

Big Rapids High School’s “snack shack,” a booth located next to the food court where lunch is served, has seen an increase in business since the new menu requirements went into effect. The snack shop serves pop, snack foods, candy and other items students would not find in a typical school lunch line; it’s open before and after school plus during lunch time.

In past years, the snack shop would sell six soft pretzels a day on average. With the new menu, pretzels are in higher demand, with the shop selling an average of 24 every day.

“We’re selling more junk food and extras, so that’s backfiring,” King said.

SNACK SHACK: Big Rapids High School offers a “Snack Shack” before and after school plus during lunch times. This year brought an increase in sales for some snack foods, while the district’s overall lunch sales decreased. New menu regulations are a factor in students’ changing lunch habits.

System-wide, BRPS served 1,800 fewer lunches in September than it did in the same month last year. At about 122 fewer lunches each day, the food service department lost about $5,400 in federal reimbursement that month. However, in October, the district averaged 98 more lunches a day compared to October 2011’s sales. King attributed the gradual increase in sales to students having more time to adjust to the new menu. More time also will allow for updates to the menu as staff figure out what healthy alternatives students like.

Still, the whole grain breads, sweet potato fries and bean side dishes have gotten mixed reviews from students.

“You don’t hear a whole lot of complaints now,” he said. “There’s many aspects of (the new menu) that are good. Let’s face it – multi-grain is better for you. There are kids eating fruits and vegetables who weren’t before. They’re being introduced to new foods.”

CCA began implementing the new lunch menu in the 2011-12 school year, said food service director Deb McCourt, and there have been few complaints about the food or portions.

“I actually think the meals are better this year since we increased the offerings of fresh fruits and veggies,” McCourt said.

Crossroads high school students are buying more lunches than last year, with the district’s total up by 16 meals for September 2012 compared to September 2011. CCA sold 8,599 lunches in September 2012.

Morley Stanwood Community Schools has seen a decrease in the number of lunches purchased so far this school year, but food service director Cindy Sutherland said it is a result of decreased student enrollment.

In September 2011, MSCS served an average of 954 lunches each day. This year, the district served an average of 865 lunches each day in September. With 89 fewer students enrolled in the district this year, it makes sense that an average of 89 fewer lunches would be sold each day.

The new menu regulations did not cause any drastic changes in Morley Stanwood’s lunches, Sutherland said. The district offered plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables before they were required as part of a federally-approved meal.

Federally-approved school lunches served in MOISD    

Sept. 2011     Sept. 2012     Difference

BRPS     60,000            58,200           – 1,800

CCA        8,583              8,599                + 16

CHSD      N/A                 N/A                  N/A

EPS        13,843             13,499              – 344

MSCS     18,131              16,433              – 1,698

RCAPS    18,126             17,687              – 439

Marta Johnson, who has worked as a registered dietitian in Big Rapids for 25 years, teaches her child patients – who typically come to her with weight issues – to choose healthy foods rather than count calories. Exercise also is an important part of the equation, she said.

“I don’t put them on a calorie-controlled diet for weight loss,” she said. “Sometimes, (parents) feel their children should just be eating high-protein foods. I recommend moderation – incorporating all food groups in a meal.”

Fewer families make time to prepare a healthy meal at home, Johnson observed, which eventually can lead to unhealthy eating habits.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen in families is they don’t take the time to prepare foods at home. Then they multi-task when they do eat,” Johnson said, referring to watching TV, being on a computer or driving. “They associate other habits so they feel they have to eat during. That can be dangerous.”

The emphasis on healthy lunches at school is a good step, she added, but parents have the main influence on a child’s health.

“It’s important schools offer healthy food choices. Kids spend a lot of time at school, but they spend the majority of their time at their home environment,” Johnson said. “(The federal regulations) are a step in the right direction, but a good bit of the responsibility falls on the family. People need to plan ahead to eat healthily, just like you plan ahead to get enough rest or to exercise.”

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