In a hyper-political time, even school lunch has been served with a heaping helping of political strife.
As students returned to Revere High School (RHS) last month, the last thing on their minds was the school lunch. That quickly changed, though, when students reported to the cafeteria and found smaller portions, different tasting foods, more vegetables, less meat and a sinking, hungry feeling.
During the first weeks of school, students were seen in the RHS lobby calling home and asking for parents to bring them a lunch, as they were either still hungry or didn’t care for the food.
There were stories of purple chicken nuggets, workers monitoring what students took like officers of the law, and salads with only a couple pieces of lettuce.
One student last week was allegedly even caught covertly selling potato chips on the “black market” out of his locker to students who were still hungry after eating – or perhaps not eating – their school lunch.
The school lunch issue at RHS has quickly became the top issue at the high school amongst parents and students – and has been more than a little irritating to everyone involved.
Blame quickly centered on the new food service contractor, Aramark, which replaced the long-time contractor Chartwells this year.
But after some investigation and some clearing of the smoke, it became clear that the culprit was more about new federal school lunch regulations under the Healthy Hunger-Free Child Act than about the performance of Aramark.
And this week, the issue has gone beyond RHS and has become national news as students across America boycott the new school lunches and poke fun of the portion sizes and “mandated” calorie counting on YouTube videos.
“We can’t use nearly as much salt in the food and we have to use whole grain breads and flour,” said Superintendent Paul Dakin. “That has all affected taste, quality and portions this year. We are mandated through the federal school lunch program to follow these directives now. Kids have to have a fruit and vegetable on their plate, that’s required, even if they throw it away the minute after they take it. These new regulations show what we can cook with and what we can and cannot serve the kids. This is something that happened just this year and it is new…It’s unfortunate for Aramark that they’re on the hot seat because people don’t understand the depth of the nutrition regulations that had to be implemented this year.
“I’ve seen kids in the high school hallway waiting for mom to bring them lunches because they don’t want to eat the cafeteria food,” added Dakin. “At this point, it is a problem.”
Cheryl Cole, local manager for Aramark, said that the regulations have categories for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools – each with different caloric minimums and maximums. However, most of the complaints, she said, come from the high school. That’s because there is a maximum of 850 calories per lunch, she said.
“Last year, the students could get the meatball sub and it had five meatballs and came on a beautiful six-inch sub roll,” said Cole. “They could take that with whole milk and it was a federally reimbursable meal. In terms of these new regulations, the meatball sub still has five meatballs, but it can’t sit on that sub roll because there are too many grains in the sub roll and it will exceed the maximum grain content. Instead of the sub roll, it will now sit on a whole grain hot dog roll, but it also comes with a fresh vegetable, a hot vegetable, a piece of fruit, a cupped fruit and 100 percent fruit juice. They can still take the milk, but it has to be 1 percent unflavored or fat-free flavored milk. Whole milk and 2 percent milk are gone.” She also said that working without some of the new banned ingredients – such as white breads, whole milk and much lower salt levels – has been a learning process. However, she said that she is in favor of the new regulations because standards hadn’t been changed for 15 years, and statistics show that there is a major problem with childhood diabetes rates.
“It does affect taste, using whole grain dough and reduced sodium content in things like pizza,” she said. “Let’s face it, fat and salt taste good, but it’s not heart smart. Once challenge is to create the recipe to fall within the regulations and also create a meal that is visually appealing and tastes good too.”
The regulations are promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supplies the school lunch and breakfast programs across America. They are aimed at curbing childhood obesity and teaching healthy lifestyles. First Lady Michelle Obama championed the new law, and she has gotten just as much criticism as praise for it.
In Revere, many parents are not happy about central planners in Washington, D.C., dictating a one-size-fits-all diet for their kids. Several parents talked to the Journal on the condition of remaining anonymous. None were satisfied with the new food choices, especially parents whose kids were athletes.
“As a parent, I think it is ridiculous,” said one anonymous parent. “If my child is obese, they need to look at me as a parent and not change the lunches for every single kid. Some kids, this is their only hot meal of the day and they don’t go home right after school to find food waiting for them when they’re hungry. The kids now get this silly, piddly little lunch or they have to spend more money to buy a second or third lunch. What are they really accomplishing by doing this? I don’t think it’s reasonable. They get a half-cup of pasta. I don’t know anybody that only eats a half-cup of pasta. It’s the portions that bother me most, and especially for kids who play sports or are active. This just isn’t enough for them to go through the school day and then go to practice or a game. I understand there is an obesity problem, but I don’t know if this kind of regulation is the answer.”
Cole said that not every student is active or plays sports, and for those that do, the school lunch isn’t designed to be the only food source. She said it is suggested that they supplement the lunch with healthy snacks from home.
“I understand the concern of a growing, active child who needs 3,000 calories a day,” said Cole, “but this isn’t supposed to be the only source of calories. On the flip side, not every kid is that active. That maximum number in the regulations applied to the general population. Every metabolism is different and this is not supposed to be the only source of calories.”
She said that she hopes students won’t end up boycotting the RHS lunch program, and she also hopes that parents will warm up to the new selections. She added that they are just now starting a new cycle of menus this month and they believe the food will be better, as the learning curve has been worked out.
“We may not like it, but we don’t have a choice in it,” she said. “It is what it is. We can boycott school lunch or we can come up with a plan to keep the kids happy with good food and new choices that are within the regulations.”
Superintendent Paul Dakin said it isn’t the best turn of events from the federal government, but it isn’t something the schools can do anything about. They are required to do it, or they will completely lose funding for the food service program. “It is a different diet,” he said. “In all honesty, if an adult went on a diet like this, like the food that is being served under the new regulations, we would lose weight and we would be miserable doing it. It’s almost a forced diet on the kids. We can’t do anything about it though. If a regulation comes my way, I have to suck it up and implement it. I can’t really start a revolution against the federal government when they can just lop off my subsidy for the program. I can try to lobby in my Superintendent’s association and in other forums…Some stuff we’re doing might not be the best thing for kids.”