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Too much crunch?

Students resist lunch changes

POSTED October 1, 2012 3:47 p.m.
Veronica Coons Great Bend Tribune/

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A school janitor commented to USD 428 Food Service Director Karl Sprague this week that he had to add an extra waste basket in the lunchroom because the volume of waste had increased.  It’s not paper plates, napkins or milk cartons filling the extra space.  Its food.  Colorful, crunchy vegetables and fruits and whole grain breads, and leaner proteins.  
As many parents know, introducing students to new foods can sometimes be a battle, and that goes for at school as well as at home, Assistant Superintendent Dan Brungardt said.  The food can be offered, but lunchroom monitors can’t require students to eat it.  
“School lunches are not mandatory,” said USD 428 Assistant Superintendent Dan Brungardt. “If they don’t like the lunch, we’ve never made them eat it.  They are welcome to bring their own lunch.”  
Sprague acknowledged there has been a marked increase of students doing just that.  Luckily, he said, there have not been “brown bag” boycotts, something that has occurred in many districts nationwide.
After 35 years in the food service industry, Sprague finds it difficult to adopt that attitude, and he and his staff struggle with the changes, sometimes more than the students they serve.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always lived by the mantra, ‘give the customer what they want’,” he said.  “Now, it’s changed to ‘give the customer only what they need.’ ”  
Still, he reluctantly admits, the dietary changes are ultimately for the best.  As he sees it,the issue is there’s just a lot more bigger students.
Brungardt agrees.  As he sees it,like any change, over time, it will work itself out.  
“You really can’t complain,” he said.  “Statistics show the kids really are overweight. I don’t believe we’re causing all of that — but there has to be a role for education or to bring in something fresh.”
Thinking back to his childhood, Sprague remembers going home after school to work at least two hours with cattle, and appreciated a big lunch and dinner.  Today’s kids, he said, aren’t nearly as active, and don’t burn as many calories.  

National debate
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was heralded as a victory for First Lady Michelle Obama in her fight to end childhood obesity.  The promise of healthier choices in school lunches came with images of the President’s wife toiling in the White House garden and mingling with Disney channel actors and actresses, smilingly enjoying fresh, healthy snacks.  
However, simply providing students with fresh fruits and vegetables is no guarantee they are going to like them.  Some students have been tossing the “crudité” into the trash, and voicing complaints to parents that their lunches are small and bland.  Some parents have complained to USD 428 Assistant Superintendent Dan Brungardt, a challenge his peers across the nation have had to deal with too.
“The school lunch program is only one-third of the meals a kid gets in a day,” he said.  He has received complaints from parents, and in response, has provided them with the information about the new standards or laws that they have to follow. “Our goal is to follow the regulations, which we have to, and to provide the best meal we can at the best cost to parents.”
Over the past few weeks, a video posted on YouTube created by the students of Washington County Schools in North Central Kansas has gone viral. The video was created to protest changes to the school lunches that limit calories, suggesting that students are not getting enough food in order to do well in school and in sports activities.   It spurred a video response by the First Lady, explaining why changes have been implemented.  

Calorie Cap
Though the school lunch program was never meant to “fill up” kids, cooks had leeway in the amounts they could serve.  Some districts would have a sandwich station, Sprague said, where kids could make themselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if they were still hungry after finishing their school lunch.  Others offered seconds.  
Today, under the new Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, schools that take part in the free and reduced lunch program are required to adhere to strict caps on serving size, as well as amounts and varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables offered on both a daily and weekly basis.  
The clamp-down on calories has made it hard to “fancy up” dishes also.  
“We used to be able to mix a cheese sauce into the broccoli to make it more tasty for the kids,” he said.  “Now, we have to be very conscious of the amount of saturated fat and sodium in the food.”
Last year, high school students were served up to 18 servings of bread each week.  Now, they are capped at 12 servings.  
“All it takes is one extra bun or dinner roll, and we’re off the grid,” Sprague said.  
In fact, only fresh fruits and vegetables offer leeway on the caps.  There are daily minimums that must be met, but no maximums listed.  They also happen to be the most costly items on the menu, as well as the items most likely to be thrown out.  

Aim of the Program
As Brungardt sees it, the federal government wants kids to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and the only place they influence the greatest number of the kids is at school. Since the number of students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch program within the district is high, the USDA supplies nearly half the budget for the school lunch program.  The district could lose that funding if it doesn’t carefully comply with the new regulations
First Lady Michelle Obama puts it this way:
“It’s about ensuring that all of you have everything you need to learn and grow and succeed in school and in life, because you all are the future of this country, and I want you to know that I believe in you.”
For many years, the school lunch program has been self sufficient, Brungardt said.  This means expenditures are not any higher for the program than what it brings in--and that appears to be the way the district would like to keep it.  Costs are kept down under Spragues management, through bulk buying and because the district uses a central kitchen, he said.  
Districts without these advantages sometimes need to make up food service shortfalls with transfers from the district General Fund.  The GF is where payroll for teachers comes from, Brungardt said.  

Menu makeovers
Sprague attended a national conference in July, and found many other school food service directors complaining about the changes.  Old favorites would be leaving, including many popular desserts.  
Over the summer, he and his staff looked at menus, and decided to make servings of bread items smaller.  
The one alteration that has caused the most disappointment, both for Sprague and his staff, as well as students, is the removal of the “crunch” from the Crunchy Munchy Chili.
This popular dish, consisting of homemade chili with corn chips and a frosted cinnamon roll no longer comes with chips, and the cinnamon roll is smaller and unfrosted.
“In order to comply, we had to either lose the “crunch” or the cinnamon roll,” he said.  “We made the best possible choice, but its still not quite the same thing.”
For the past 15 years, the focus of the school lunch program has been ensuring students get adequate amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, Sprague said.
“This has been like a 90 degree turn,” he said.  “We’ve had to adjust to looking at the calories, the amount of sugar and sodium and fruits and vegetables being served, and it’s taken quite a mental adjustment.”
In order to help cut out sodium, the kitchen staff has been experimenting with more scratch cooking than before, and have also developed some of their own seasoning mixes.
“We used to use a taco seasoning mix, but when I really examined it, I found it was really high in sodium,” Sprague said.  
Some of the changes at work are influencing him personally.  “Over the past few years, I’ve tried a lot of foods for the first time,” he said.  A salt lover, he’s still searching for herb and spice combinations that add the flavor he’s craving as he attempts to cut fats and salts from his own diet.  
Vendors are also changing and adapting to the new rules, he said.  He looks forward to better lines that work within the parameters coming out in the future.    
“It will take awhile for vendors and kids to adjust, but over time I think it will work out,” he said.
In the meantime, middle school and high school students are allowed to buy additional items from the a la carte line at school.  The purchases are cash only, not subsidized by the USDA program.  Though the choices offered are also getting a facelift, a student can still quiet a sweet tooth with choices like homemade cookies or ice cream novelties.  Thirst can be quenched with sweetened clear liquids like Gatorade and flavored waters and the craving for crunch can be crushed with a small bags of chips.  In the end, it’s ultimately going to be up to kids and parents what the long term effects of the changes will be.
“In time, this will blow over,” Brungardt said.  “Either we’ll continue to see more sack lunches, or the kids will get used to the new standard.”

Other resources:
Washington County Schools student video We Are Hungry,
First Lady Michelle Obama’s response,

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