In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law a policy redefining public school lunch to emphasize a healthy lifestyle. Championed by the U.S. Department and Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act changed the standard of school lunch to reflect new nutrition guidelines as a way to combat rising childhood obesity and promote health in schools.
Four years later, the Logan City and Cache County school districts are in the process of adapting to this policy and making changes in their cafeterias.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which went into effect July 1, 2012, ensures that the 31 million students who participate in school meal programs nationwide are offered more fruits and vegetables, whole grain-rich foods, low-fat or fat-free milk and limited sodium, saturated fat and trans fat.
For the Logan City School District, changes have been adopted gradually with a new standard implemented every academic year to reach total compliance by 2023. This year, providing meals with lower sodium levels has been the target, according to Paul Guymon, child nutrition manager for the district.
“We didn’t cut sodium all at once because kids wouldn’t eat,” Guymon said. “It’s a gradual decrease.”
The Cache School District is farther along, and in fact has already reached the 2023 goals.
Susan Wallentine, child nutrition coordinator for the Cache County School District, said the district now meets all requirements under the policy after making gradual changes to the lunch program.
“We started step by step and now that we have to meet these guidelines, we’re good to go,” she said. “We started slow and have worked our way into it.”
The nationwide effort to get kids to eat healthier has taken on more urgency as childhood obesity rates have climbed. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Being overweight or obese boosts the risk of a variety of illnesses from cardiovascular disease to Type 2 diabetes, joint problems and sleep apnea.
Still, some schools experienced resistance when implementing the nutritional changes to the lunch program. Sydney Bohn, lunchroom manager at Logan High School, said having to take a fruit or vegetable in the meal didn’t go over too well with students at first.
“It’s not as well-received, especially on the high school level, because you don’t tell a teenager what to do, let alone what to eat,” Bohn said. “So there is a little bit of a rebellion.”
Bohn said her staff has noticed an increased amount of food waste and decreased participation in the school lunch program.
“It’s frustrating for the students and for us too,” she said. “We don’t like to see the waste; they don’t like to see the waste. Nobody likes to see the waste. They don’t want to take it because they know they’re going to waste it.”
Wallentine said the required serving of fruits and vegetables was also difficult for some of the schools in her district, but now it’s just part of the lunch routine.
“That was hard because you saw a lot of fruits and vegetables go in the garbage because they had to have it on their tray, but they didn’t have to eat it,” Wallentine said. “But now that it’s been a year and a half, it’s started to get easier.”
At Willow Valley Middle School in Wellsville, 300 apples and 500 salads are served every day, according to Chris Leetham, the school’s food service manager. Leetham said most students will take fruits and vegetables without any hassle.
“We push the fruits and vegetables because some kids don’t get them at home,” she said. “Ninety percent of the kids will try (new fruits or vegetables), and we have a really good report of coming back to get them again.”
Leetham said the new lunch program makes it easy for kids to make healthy eating choices; all they have to do is pick five of the available items, including a fruit or vegetable, and they’re eating a balanced meal.
“School lunch has had a bad name a little bit because they think we’re the ones not cutting back and making good choices for the kids, but it’s nothing to do with us,” she said. “We’ve always looked at that pyramid and tried to provide healthy choices.”
About 60 percent of students in the Logan City School District and 33 percent of of students in the Cache County School District are part of a free or reduced lunch program. For Guymon, making fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy meals available can help students make a difference in the nutritional decisions made in their homes.
“Some of my school managers that have had parents ask where we buy our tortillas and stuff from because kids like it and they’re used to it,” he said. “Being able to select fruits and vegetables that maybe they don’t have at home so when their parents are at the grocery store (they can say), ‘Let’s get this. I’ve had it and I’m familiar with it.’”
Indeed, research is bearing out that school lunches are typically healthier than ones kids bring from home.
According to a study conducted by researchers from Virginia Tech University and published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, packed lunches typically have more fat and calories than school lunches due to the presence of chips, desserts and sugary drinks.
According to a report at www.techtimes.com, “on average, school meals had around 512 calories while home-packed lunches packed in about 608 calories. School meals also had around 26 grams of protein while home-packed lunches offered only 18 grams.”
The story states of the 50 million children attending public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. every day, about 40 percent bring their own food to school while the other 60 percent rely on school lunches for sustenance during the day.
University nutrition director at St. Louis’ Washington University Connie Diekman told Tech Times she was not surprised at the results of the study.
“This study provides outcomes that are similar to other studies that show the positive benefits of school lunch,” she told Tech Times.
To make this transition easier for students, schools serve healthier versions of food students like to eat. The pizza served by Logan School District, for example, is a Dominos brand, but is made on a whole grain crust with low-sodium sauce and low-sodium cheese.
“It’s a healthy version of pizza,” Guymon said. “Students recognize (it), and students like what they recognize. We serve something that students don’t recognize, it’s not going to be widely accepted. … We try to stick with the healthy versions of what kids are familiar with and what kids like.”
Ynitzi, a sixth grader at Willow Valley, said she loves the pizza offered at school.
“It’s very good and it’s not raw or anything,” she said. “It’s good because it’s low fat. … I can’t really taste the difference.”
Tanis, a sixth grader at Willow Valley, said he enjoys the lunch options in the cafeteria.
“They usually serve really delicious lunch,” he said. “I sometimes get pizza and sometimes I get other stuff. I try to find something new, so I can try something new every time.”
Tristan, a sixth grader at Willow Valley Middle School, said he doesn’t always love the vegetables he has to take, but he eats them to stay healthy.
“I like the vegetable choices because I arm wrestle and it usually gets me really strong,” he said.
For more information on the school lunch program, go to School Nutrition Association’s website, www.traytallk.org.