First Lady Michelle Obama worries about overweight kids, but parents and school teachers worry that students are not getting enough to eat. After the first two weeks of the 2012 school year, students and teachers have had a chance to experience the First Lady’s revised lunch program for themselves.
Obama, concerned by the increase in obesity and childhood diabetes in public schools, has strengthened the requirements of fruits and vegetables at lunch.
“It’s tough to get used to. Lots of schools around the country were giving away seconds and over-portioning, but the state said ‘no, you can’t do that.’” -- Larry Young, in charge of meals at North Platte Public Schools.
Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign aims to reduce fats, sodium, consumption of unneeded calories, to foster healthy and nutritious eating habits in children.
The Child Nutrition Act dates back to the 1960s to the Lyndon Johnson administration, and Congress regularly reauthorizes and sometimes modifies the act, with help from the Department of Agriculture in consultation with the Institute of Medicine.
But local officials in Arnold and Stapleton say obesity is not as big of a concern in their schools compared to metropolitan areas, because rural students tend to be much more active.
“These laws don’t always fit our rural areas,” Arnold Principal Dawn Lewis said. “Our children are active from elementary through high school. Most of the elementary students participate in Pee Wee or junior high volleyball or football and some go to gymnastics or dance. High school students who lift weights arrive at 6 a.m. and are here until after practice at 6 p.m.”
Officials in Hershey and North Platte say the lunch requirements haven’t really changed, but the paperwork has increased. They say the “Let’s Move” lunch program requires extra expenses. Cooks spend hours filling out mandatory paper work. And, public workers have been hired to review and approve the meals.
Stapleton: too light
Stapleton School Secretary Chris Harvey said that 90 percent of the children in the school participate in some form of physical activity after school. She estimates the percentage of overweight children in their school at about 3 percent. She estimates the severely underweight children at 4 percent. Harvey said all of the underweight children are on free and reduced meals and would not be able to afford the extra protein.
Stapleton school nurse Jennifer Johnston said that “Physically active children need more nutrition to learn and to grow.”
But Hershey Elementary Principal Jason Callahan said the staff was concerned about the federal requirements when they first heard about them, but the kitchen staff has done a good job of adjusting and he has not had any complaints.
North Platte: Same requirements
North Platte officials say the requirements haven’t changed, just shifted in emphasis.
“The protein requirement hasn’t changed; the breads and grains haven’t changed, the milk requirements haven’t changed; they are just enforcing it more,” said Larry Young, the director of Sodexho, a company that handles North Platte’s public school meals.
Nor have portion sizes changed, Young said. But this year, students are required to eat a half cup of fruit or vegetables every day.
“They are emphasizing fruits and vegetables and holding to (long-standing) limits on breads and proteins,” Young said. “It’s tough to get used to. Lots of schools around the country were giving away seconds and over-portioning, but the state said ‘no, you can’t do that.’”
If students want extra helpings, they have to buy them.
And unlike the cost of the main meal, second helpings are not subsidized for low-income families by the federal government, so costs could keep some students from eating as much as they need.
Hershey tries to compensate by offering an unlimited salad bar to every student and keeping costs low for extra helpings – 50 cents an entrée, Callahan said.
Sodexho charges students $1.75-$2 for a (three entrée) second meal instead of selling just 1-2 extra entrées, but students can share, Young said.
Young said record keeping is quite a challenge, even for students, who make their choices as they go through the line. They must pick three of five entrees on the menu. They can skip meat if they choose, but they must have their milk, fruit or vegetables. Meat and bread are optional.
“They could have peaches, green beans and milk for lunch, for instance,” Young said.
“I can see how the changes are a problem for smaller districts,” North Platte School Board President Jim Paloucek said. “We are fortunate to be a larger district and contract with Sodexho. A lot of schools don’t have that luxury."
Paloucek agreed that the requirements are strict. The federal government won’t subsidize free and reduced-price lunches at all if a school doesn’t comply with the new standards.
Arnold School Secretary Penny Allen said federal programs such as Title 1, IDEA (special education) and school lunch subsidies are all interconnected and refusing to comply would cost Arnold approximately $50,000 per year, a pricey proposition.
Sen. Mike Johanns has forwarded some of the concerns from Arnold and Stapleton to the USDA in Washington.
This report was first published in the Sept. 5 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.