The National School Lunch Program has been raising the nutrition standards for school lunches since the 2012-2013 school year. While some schools have had difficulty meeting the new standards, McPherson School District officials think the district lunch program is doing well.
The new standards came as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010. This act works in stages to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition by making sure children have nutritious food.
The act requires schools in the national lunch program to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and reduced-fat milk and limit the amount of sodium and fat in foods.
It also requires lunches to meet calorie limits.
Bill Froese, director of food services and transportation for McPherson schools, said it was difficult at first to comply with the new standards because schools had to adjust their menus quickly.
He said schools didn’t get the final guidelines until July 2012, and the guidelines were very strict. The district didn’t have much time to rework the menu and find suppliers who could meet the standards.
“We had to put some things in place that may not have been very popular,” Froese said.
Chris Ruder, associate superintendent, said the district received complaints from students and parents about the new menu when it was first introduced. However, Froese said the Federal Government relaxed the standards partway through the year, which gave the district more flexibility.
He also said he spent the summer reworking the lunch menus to make them more appealing to students.
“I’ve tried to go with kid friendly foods that meet the guidelines,” Froese said.
One method to make the menu kid-friendly was to give them options. Froese said elementary schools have two entrée options, the middle school has at least three, and the high school has as many as six.
Students also can pick and choose which foods they want as long as they follow MyPlate guidelines. MyPlate is a nutrition guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture that illustrates components of a balanced meal.
The guide includes five food groups: vegetables, fruits, protein, grain and dairy. Students pick foods from at least three of these groups to make their meal. One of those groups must be fruits and/or vegetables.
Guides posted by lunch lines help students know which foods fall into which groups. For example, a slice of pepperoni French bread pizza counts as both a protein and a grain. If the student adds at least a half-cup of fruit and/or vegetables, it qualifies as a meal.
At the high school, students also can purchase items a la carte, such as Little Caesar’s pizza, french fries and hamburgers. Students who choose this option do not have to follow MyPlate guidelines
Page 2 of 3 - However, Froese said buying items a la carte is usually more expensive because complete lunches are partially subsidized by federal and state government funding.
“If a child’s going hungry, it’s because they didn’t take advantage of what we have to offer,” Froese said.
For students, the new menu can be hit-and-miss. Ashtyn Schieferecke, a high school sophomore, said while most of the main dishes are good, she doesn’t like the side dishes as much.
Chelsey Kerr, another high school sophomore, said she'd like to see more healthy a la carte options.
“It seems like a la carte is just a bunch of junk,” Kerr said. “If you have a good lunch, you’ll do better.”
Chris Stiles, a high school junior, said he likes a la carte because he thinks it gives him more freedom to choose his own lunch and it tastes better.
“I’ve had good nutritional food before,” said Coleman George, a high school junior. “I don't know what the gap is.”
Dalton Wells, another high school junior, said the cost of lunch is too high.
“They have to make some profit, but it’s a bit much,” Wells said.
Full-price school lunches cost $2.75 at the high school, $2.65 at the middle school and $2.55 at elementary schools. Reduced price lunches cost 40 cents.
Froese said these prices are 10 cents higher than last year to offset higher food costs.
“As nutritional value goes up, so do the costs,” Froese said. “For the nutritional value they get, they can’t go to McDonald’s or Wendy’s.”
Froese said the reason some school districts drop out of the National School Lunch Program is because they can’t afford to meet the new standards with current government aid.
For every lunch served, McPherson schools receive $3.26 in government aid minus the price the student pays. McPherson High School serves lunches to between 600 and 700 students a day.
Froese said students often ask to have pasta and cinnamon rolls as options, but these kinds of foods don’t fit with the new standards.
Ruder said packing a lunch from home is another option for students and parents who don’t want to buy school lunch. However, he said school lunch is still a good option.
“For some of our kids, it’s the best meal they get,” Ruder said.
Froese said he isn’t surprised some criticize the lunch program.
“People are always going to criticize school lunches,” Froese said. “That’s the stigma, but I think we’re providing good food.”
Page 3 of 3 - Contact Josh Arnett by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ArnettSentinel.