With changes in federal school lunch standards, Marion High School’s cafeteria is emptier this year than in the past.
Head cook Kathy Holub said the cafeteria serves about 160 meals a day, down from about 180 last year. The main reason for the decrease is more juniors and seniors leaving school for lunch. And now sophomores are seeking approval from USD 408 Board of Education to extend open lunch to sophomores.
“We don’t get enough food, and I don’t like it,” sophomore Landon Petersen said Thursday. “Every day I’m still hungry after lunch.”
Petersen said he started bringing lunch from home more often this year.
“There are certainly students who would like more to eat,” USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said.
Hillsboro schools haven’t seen quite as much drop off in meals served, head cook Teresa Bernhardt told USD 410 Board of Education on Monday, but they aren’t satisfied with the changes to meals.
“Our kids are used to getting their calories from protein and carbohydrates,” Bernhardt said. “I had to take the potato off the potato bar. Now it’s just chili.”
Most students walk right past the salad bar, she said.
Under the new guidelines, school lunches can have a maximum of 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade, 700 calories for sixth through eighth grade, and 850 calories for high school. There are also limits on how much sodium and sugar can be in meals. Holub said meeting the calorie limits is the biggest planning challenge.
Leiker said planning every meal to meet those standards takes more time, and that extra planning time by cooks is increasing the district’s cost.
Holub said those calorie limits aren’t high enough for growing, active children.
“I think it is a hardship for some kids, especially the athletes, but also for the kids that only get one meal a day,” she said. “Some don’t get the nutrition they need at home.”
Bernhardt also said the calorie limits aren’t enough for football players, but enough food for a football player would be too much for someone who goes home after school and works on a computer. There are similar issues with elementary school lunches, she said.
“What bothers me is we have to put the same food on a kindergarten tray as on a fifth-grade tray,” Bernhardt said.
Mandates that every student receive a certain amount of fruits and vegetables also mean that there is less room in the calorie budget for what students do want, entrees.
The changes to lunches are driving more students to go on open lunch, and most of those students are probably turning to unhealthy options, defeating the purpose of the school lunch standards, Holub said.
“I have a nephew who is a big boy, and he would rather go to Casey’s and get what he wants, eat junk food, than eat a nutritious lunch here,” she said.
But the problem isn’t one that USD 408, USD 410, or any school district can do much about. The guidelines were set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If a school doesn’t meet those requirements, it risks losing federal reimbursement for free and reduced-price lunches, and those reimbursements add up in a hurry.
Hillsboro USD 410 received more than $140,000 in reimbursements for the 2011-12 school year, business manager Jerry Hinerman said. That is more than three times the salary and benefits of a new teacher.
With that much money at stake, school districts can’t afford to make a statement by serving meals outside the federal guidelines.
“A lot of kids are very understanding,” Holub said. “They aren’t happy about it, but they understand that it comes from above.”