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Student participation in school lunch program dwindling

Article Date: 
14 September, 2012 (All day)

When Anna Phelps takes her turn to drive a carpool of kids to Morgan Middle School, she is hearing a common complaint: the students just don’t like school lunch anymore and are starting to pack their lunches.  Even on pizza day.  
It seems like Phelps’ carpool is not alone.
Morgan School District Food Services Supervisor Roxanne Rich said the number of students eating school lunch each day is down an average of 150 compared to last year. That’s almost 6 percent of district students choosing a different lunch alternative.
And Rich knows why.
It’s the new standards for school meals being rolled out this school year by First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  The standards means an offering of both fruits and vegetables every day, limited calories and portion sizes based on students’ age, more whole grains, fat-free milk, and reduced saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
That means on pizza day, the crust is now whole wheat.
“We have to be whole grains on everything, and it tastes different,” Rich said.  “They’ve dropped the calories.  I know it is hard to get used to.”
She is right.  Morgan students just aren’t warming up to the new program.
“I am seeing a lot not eating lunch, at the high school in particular,” Rich said.  “They are just not getting full.  There is more food than ever.  It is just not what they want.”
Phelps said her son estimates that 90 percent of the fruits and vegetables on Morgan Middle School students’ trays are being thrown away each day.
“That is money going down the drain,” Phelps said.
But keeping money in the school program is exactly why Rich is sticking to the new guidelines. Even though she knows the changes are unpopular with students, Rich said her hands are tied.  She will only get federal funding if she follows the new standards, she said.  However, if more and more students choose not to participate in school lunch, her program may not operate in the black anymore.
To make matters a little more complicated, the prices of school lunch in all four area schools have increased to cover the price of the fresh produce.
When Phelps’ 180-pound 13-year-old, who is not obese, comes home from school each day, he is famished.  It seems the school lunch offering 500 to 700 calories just isn’t enough for her son that requires 4,000 calories daily, per doctor orders.
“With such small portions, I feel the government is requiring my child to go on a diet,” Phelps said.  “The government has no right to do that.  They want things to be a one-size-fits-all, and it isn’t.”
Phelps is considering offering the school a doctor’s note stating her son’s caloric needs, and asking them to accommodate them. She would like to see more local control of the school lunch menu.
Rich said school lunch requirements should be different for schools in rural areas like Morgan, where there is less obesity and many students participating in sports programs.
“We have really active kids in Morgan,” Rich said.  “We do want the kids to eat healthy.”
Both Rich and Phelps agree that the new standards were meant to make children healthier.  However, the school lunch menu approach may be backfiring because more and more children are packing lunches from home and raiding the fridge as soon as return from school.
“You can get a better meal when it’s fresh, rather than packed,” Phelps said.
Since schools have been given three years to phase in the new standards, things will be different next year, Rich said.  There will be more whole grain next year and fewer cookies, she said.  Next year’s cookies will have more whole grains in them.  She will even have to figure the breading on chicken nuggets differently next year.
For those voicing their concerns over the new lunch requirements, Rich suggests people contact their law makers such as Rob Bishop at robbishop.house.gov.
Phelps already has.
“I’m hoping the government doesn’t get too big,” she said.