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The Bellevue Public Schools used to make homemade cheese bread on big hoagies.
Last week, the district used hot dog buns instead.
“The sixth-graders were like, ‘Are you kidding? That's all we get?'” said Mary Hansen, Bellevue's food service director.
The change is just one example of what schools are doing to meet the nation's new school lunch rules — in this case, a limit on processed grains.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting meat, sodium and calories.
Before the school year started, some raised concerns that the new rules would leave kids hungry, cause more to pack sack lunches and send mounds of veggies into the trash. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, recently introduced a bill that would repeal the act.
But a little more than a month into the school year, the results are as mixed as an old-school California veggie blend.
At Council Bluffs' Thomas Jefferson High School, several athletes said the lunches are enough to power them through classes and practice.
“We're always hungry,” said senior Brett Sprinkel, a football player, as he ate his crispitos. A bowl of baby carrots and an orange were still waiting on his tray. “But for the most part, we get enough to eat here.”
School officials say it's too early to get a precise read.
Participation in school lunch programs typically starts off slow as kids try out new lunch boxes and parents test their resolve to pack lunches. So far, most of the 10 Nebraska and Iowa districts contacted say that so far their numbers are running close to last year's.
Some have seen an uptick in waste. Several others, however, said they've seen no change. And a couple have even seen less waste, which they attribute to offering kids more choices.
Officials with most districts haven't gotten calls with complaints about kids not getting enough to eat. Some, however, have heard rumblings from students, most of them from older kids.
Some of the changes are more noticeable than others. Gone are the bread baskets that districts such as Omaha, Bellevue and Neligh-Oakland once set out. The Council Bluffs district has taken meat, cheese and croutons off salad bars. Westside deep-sixed double cheeseburgers. And desserts everywhere are few and far between.
Districts that already had been moving toward the new targets, based on 2009 recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, will see fewer shocks, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.
Most metropolitan-area districts long have been moving toward healthier meals, switching to low-fat milk and adding whole grains some time ago. A number also have offered programs aimed at getting kids to try new fruits and vegetables.
But Diane Zipay, the Westside district's nutrition services director, said the upper limits on calories, proteins and grains don't consider kids' differing metabolisms.
School lunch requirements
under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act
Meats and meat alternatives
Minimum: 1 ounce a day for grades K-8; 2 ounces for grades 9-12
Weekly range: 8 to 10 ounces for grades K-5; 9 to 10 ounces for grades 6-8; 10 to 12 ounces for grades 9-12
Minimum: 1 ounce a day for grades K-8; 2 ounces for grades 9-12
Weekly range: 8 to 9 ounces for grades K-5; 8 to 10 ounces for grades 6-8; 10 to 12 ounces for grades 9-12
50 percent of all grains now must be whole-grain rich. Starting July 1, 2014, all grains must be whole-grain rich.
Daily minimum and maximum calorie levels are 550 to 650 for grades K-5; 600 to 700 for grades 6-8; 750 to 850 for grades 9-12
(Schools with K-6 in one building can go with the overlapping range, 600 to 650 calories.)
Fruits and vegetables
Schools must offer kids in grades K-8 one-half a cup of fruit and three-fourths of a cup of vegetables daily, and kids in grades 9-12 a cup of fruit and a cup of vegetables a day. A school that served meals without offering kids a choice would have to put all of those items on a tray.
To count, foods must come in a form students can recognize. So schools can serve beans in a burrito, but they won't count toward the veggie tally.
Source: Westside Community Schools, School Nutrition Association, Mayo Clinic.
Monday's 2 ounces of all-white meat, cornstarch-coated chicken nuggets brought complaints from elementary students left wanting more. But adding to the count would leave meals short of protein later in the week.
A group of fourth-graders at Westside's Swanson Elementary said last week that they get plenty to eat. Some even take the extra “Super Power” veggies the district offers. A handful of older students, however, lined up for extra chicken tacos. Students can purchase additional entrees.
“I'm OK with all the rules but the maximums,” Zipay said.
Edith Zumwalt, the Lincoln Public Schools' nutrition services director, has concerns about grain requirements, particularly at the elementary level.
To hit the daily minimum requirement last week, servers added two packages of crackers to one meal. Some kids didn't want them. But on spaghetti day, she can't serve garlic bread or she'll go over the weekly grain maximum.
Students can, however, have more fruits and vegetables. High in fiber, they will fill kids up, said Pratt-Heavner, the nutrition association spokeswoman.
School officials said some kids are upping their fruit and veggie intake. Under the old rules, kids in many districts could walk away without either a fruit or veggie. That's not the case anymore.
Kimberly Lingenfelter, superintendent of the Neligh-Oakdale Public Schools in Neligh, Neb., said she believes the district is throwing away less food this year because it's offering more choices – at least a dozen, between hot vegetables in line and items on the fruit and vegetable bar.
Tammy Yarmon, nutrition services director for the Omaha Public Schools, said several high school kitchen managers have told her that they're having a hard time keeping vegetables in stock because kids are actually taking more.
“Have the kids noticed a change? Yes,” she said. “Has it been all negative? No, or we wouldn't have gone through all the fruits and vegetables we have.”
At the start of the year, lunchroom staffs had to send some kids back to get a fruit or vegetable. Some kept fruit, applesauce or raisins near the registers.
But taking an item doesn't necessarily mean a student will eat it.
Gretchen Molina, kitchen manager at Lincoln Southeast High School, said she tells kids to take something they think they'll eat — or try something new. Initially, there was a lot of waste, because kids didn't understand why they had to take fruits or veggies. Now they're understanding and accepting.
Jordan Kempkes, a Southeast junior, said she never used to take a vegetable. Now it seems normal.
“It has changed our mentality on how we look at food,” she said.
Faye Arthur, a junior at Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson, tried garbanzo beans. “If something's sitting on your tray, you're going to be like, ‘Oh, I might as well eat it. At least it's healthy,'” she said.
Judy Stoysich Kyle, food service director for Sodexo School Services at the Ralston Public Schools, said the change isn't going to happen all at once. It took a while for whole-grain pizza crust to catch on, too.
This year, she drove from school to school on the first day of classes, visiting all six of Ralston's elementary buildings.
“It just really kind of hit me. Those kids are never going to know anything different,” she said. “Those kids are always going to know a fruit or vegetable at lunch. And I think that's worth a shot.”
Lorena Carmona of the World-Herald's Lincoln bureau contributed to this report.
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