The cafeteria conflict

School lunch.

Two words that can bring back so many memories. Maybe it’s the chicken pot pie with the missing chicken, or the Monday mystery meat that no one touched. Maybe it’s Adam Sandler’s parody song, “Lunchlady Land,” that brings you back to standing in line waiting to hear the daily special then wrinkling your nose and shaking your head “no” when offered “sloppy joe, slop, sloppy joe.”

Or maybe it’s the pizza.

The comforting thought of Friday pizza day, with a side of salty canned green beans.

No matter the memories, school lunch is a rite of passage. It’s eating from a compartmentalized Styrofoam tray and grumbling about the food with your peers between classes. It’s memories of opting for a hot dog and plate of French fries that inevitably spilled over into all of the squares of the tray.

But those days are gone. Four years ago, Congress implemented the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act after the country saw an increase in obese children starving for essential nutrients. For the first time in 30 years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been allowed to apply healthier eating guidelines in public schools.

White bread and pastas have been replaced with whole wheat, pickles were eliminated because of high sodium content, skim and low-fat milk replaced full-fat milk, and fruits and vegetables became mandatory. And bye-bye to those fried foods.

The guidelines may have created healthier school lunches, but many students are not happy.

“Daniela loved the food when she first started going to school,” says Janina Martinez, a mom of three, with Daniela in seventh grade, Alex in fourth and Austin in kindergarten at the Baton Rouge Foreign Language Academic Immersion Magnet.

“And as the years progressed, I seemed to be sending lunch more often for both Daniela and Alex,” Martinez says. “One time she came home and told me about the chicken jiggling like Jell-O.”

It was eye-opening for Martinez, but she says she really started to wonder about the food when Alex came home and exclaimed, “Mommy, they managed to mess up the pizza. The pizza!”

It’s a challenge that East Baton Rouge Parish School (EBRPS) officials recognize. The school district serves 36,000 lunches and 20,000 breakfasts daily, and nearly 84 percent of those meals are served to students eligible for the free and reduced-price meals program. Despite the challenges with the new changes, the $26 million program has been able to break even, says Nadine Mann, director of the Child Nutrition Program for EBRPS.

To meet the new mandates, the school district removed hot dogs, chili and macaroni and cheese from its menu, opting for more beans and burritos. It also changed its buns from white to whole wheat.

Mann says students haven’t accepted some of the healthier changes, specifically the shift to whole wheat buns.

“I think kids are accustomed to eating fast food, and when they don’t get hamburgers and French fries—which we serve baked, not fried—they don’t like it,” Mann says. “I believe that the cafeteria is like a classroom, and because they’re in there twice per day, they are going to have to learn to add fruits and vegetables to their meals and learn portion control. It takes time, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The cost of producing one meal, which includes the food, the labor and the lunchroom employees’ benefits, is $3.07. Elementary school students are charged $2.25, and middle and high school students are charged $2.50. The district is reimbursed just under $3, Mann says. However, school districts have the opportunity to be reimbursed the full amount of each meal if a student chooses three of the five menu items offered, and one of those items has to be a serving of vegetables or fruit.

That mandate is creating a lot of wasted food and money, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the National Harbor, Maryland-based School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 55,000 school cafeteria professionals nationwide.

SNA estimates that the number of lunches served in Louisiana decreased from 596,000 meals served in 2010 to 565,000 meals served in 2013.

“That’s a pretty big dip,” says Pratt-Heavner. “The National School Lunch Program has enjoyed years of steady growth, but what we’re now seeing is a lot of waste, mostly with fruits and vegetables.”

Here’s why. Because school districts will be reimbursed for each school meal if the student takes a fruit or vegetable with their meal, cafeteria workers are encouraging each student to take either a fruit or vegetable. However, they don’t have to eat the fruit or vegetable, and many students are taking it and throwing it away.

“Forcing the kids to take food they don’t want to eat has been counterproductive,” says Pratt-Heavner.

And it’s a waste of money.

According to a recent study in Public Health and Nutrition, the new mandate forcing every student to take a fruit or vegetable with each meal results in a nearly 100 percent increase in wasted fruits or vegetables or $3.8 million thrown into the trash each day, which adds up to $684 million in wasted produce each school year.

Martinez noticed the waste when she ate a Thanksgiving lunch with her son Alex at school last year.

“It was one of those meals where you looked at it and you just didn’t want to eat it,” she says. “I hate to say that, but it wasn’t good, and the kids didn’t eat it. I looked in the trash after, and it was amazing how much food was thrown away.”

Public schools across the country—including in Baton Rouge—are struggling with the school lunch program’s declining participation, reduced revenue and increased costs, which threaten the long-term viability of their meal programs, Pratt-Heavner says.

SNA is asking the USDA or Congress to provide schools with more flexibility to plan healthy meals that students will eat. Specifically, it is asking to retain the current requirement that 50 percent of grains offered with school meals be “whole grain rich” instead of increasing the requirement to 100 percent; retain sodium levels; maintain the requirements for schools to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with each meal; and require the USDA to allow any food item permitted to be served as a part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food.

“All of the people working in the school cafeterias have embraced the push for healthier options,” Pratt-Heavner says. “They are trying to limit calories and saturated fat. There’s a lot of good work being done to expose kids to healthier options. But the regulations go too far and too fast to try to push items on kids, and it’s been counterproductive.”

Mann says she’s noticed that there are more students packing lunches because of the new regulations.

“We don’t want to feed the garbage can. We want to feed the kids,” Mann says.

Prairieville mom Courtney Le says she wants healthier food in the schools. Her son Hudson is a first-grader at Spanish Lake Elementary School, and he bought lunch every day until she ate lunch with him at school last February.

“It was hot dogs and tater tots,” she recalls. “The fruit was canned peaches, and nothing was fresh. They offered strawberry milk, white milk and chocolate milk, and of course he chose the strawberry milk, because it’s sugary and flavored. The hot dog and tater tots were cold by the time he got it, because he didn’t eat until 12:30. After that day, I said, I’m not letting you eat this food. I’m sending you with food.'”

Le says she tries to feed her family clean, organic and healthy food—non-GMOs, grass-fed beef, organic and hormone-free milk and eggs. She started packing Hudson a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread, a yogurt pouch and a juice.

Parents agree that they want their children to eat healthier, but mostly, they just want their kids to eat.

“I’d like there to be a balance,” says Martinez. “I can’t say I would be happy if it was all fried foods, but I’d like it to be edible.”