Some Kansas students and at least one political leader say new school lunch guidelines aimed at limiting calories and encouraging good nutrition are having an unintended consequence:
“Here we are in the Wheat State … and I’ve heard some very sad stories recently about school lunches,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler.
One was from Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, where students and teachers created a YouTube parody, “We Are Hungry,” that blasts the new calorie guidelines:
The video, based on the Fun. hit “We Are Young,” shows students staring woefully at lunch trays, stuffing lockers with junk food, collapsing during volleyball practice and crawling on the ground in exhaustion.
“There’s just not enough” food, said 16-year-old Callahan Grund, a football player and star of the video. By Friday it had garnered 48,000 views – more than 62 times the population of Sharon Springs, a farming town not far from the Colorado border.
“When you have chores in the morning and football practice after school, you need energy. … This doesn’t cut it,” Grund said.
The major sticking point: a new federal rule that sets calorie maximums for school lunches — 650 calories for elementary-schoolers, 700 for middle-schoolers and 850 for high-schoolers.
Protesters in Kansas and elsewhere say 850 calories isn’t enough for some high-schoolers, particularly athletes who can burn calories by the thousands.
State education and nutrition officials say portion sizes at most districts haven’t changed. Students in Wichita, for instance, can get more food at lunch this year because there’s a wider array of options, a la carte items and nearly unlimited servings of fruits and vegetables.
Pockets of protest seem to be coming from districts that once ignored calorie maximums, said Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness for the Kansas Department of Education.
Until this fall, districts that opted to spend more could supplement standard school lunches, serving larger portion sizes and offering extra servings of entrees, breads and other high-calorie items.
“Some schools were providing excess food, above the requirements and the nutrition guidelines,” Johnson said. “That’s the reason we’re seeing some comments and protests.
“For the most part, we feel the new guidelines and menus are being well-received.”
The new guidelines — the first major overhaul of school meals in 15 years — also require cafeterias to serve less fat and sodium and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Linda O’Connor, an English teacher at Wallace County High School, penned the “We Are Hungry” parody after a colleague, Brenda Kirkham, posted a photo of her school lunch on Facebook and sparked dozens of outraged comments.
The lunch included one cheese-stuffed bread stick, a small dollop of marinara sauce, three apple slices and some raw spinach. Kirkham supplemented the lunch with items from a salad bar, including cubes of ham, bacon bits and dressing, which were available only to teachers.
“I asked why the sauce had no meat and I was informed that due to the breadsticks containing cheese, the meat would put us over the guidelines for protein,” Kirkham wrote.
“Now think of a high school boy who works out at least three hours a day, not including farm work. … I’m furious. The ‘cheese’ inside the breadstick is approximately three bites. This is ridiculous.”
In past weeks, students in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and St. Mark’s school near Colwich have organized brown-bag protests, packing their own lunches instead of buying school meals.
Huelskamp and Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, have introduced a bill that would repeal the calorie maximums imposed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which won congressional approval in 2010.
Huelskamp said the new lunch guidelines are “a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste and unaccomplished goals.”
He also opposes rules that require students to take servings of a fruit or vegetable at lunch, regardless of whether they plan to eat it.
“If every member of Congress would actually go into a school cafeteria and take a look at the trash can, they’d see that what sounds good on paper doesn’t always work out like you think,” Huelskamp said.
Planning other meals
Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for Wichita schools, said reaction to the new lunches so far has been mostly positive.
Wichita schools cut down on waste by setting up “share tables,” where students can leave items such as bananas, oranges or packaged foods they don’t want.
“There’s still some waste, but not as bad as we might have expected,” she said. “We’re also seeing kids eat things they might not have eaten before.”
Johnson, the state official, said claims that school lunches don’t provide enough food to keep high school athletes energized through practice are unfair and misguided.
“It’s one meal. It is designed to meet the nutrient needs of an average student of that age group, but it’s never going to meet the needs of students who burn far more calories,” Johnson said.
“We need to encourage breakfasts at home or at school. We need to encourage students to take all of the items at lunch and then to plan for after-school activities by packing a healthy snack.”
School districts that once financed bigger lunches could continue to offer extra food and comply with the calorie restrictions by establishing an afternoon snack program, Johnson said.
Parents of athletes and other active children should make sure they have a healthy snack between school and practice, Johnson said.
“The guidelines don’t say this is the only food a student should have all day,” she said. “We know from research that it is much better to have six small meals and snacks during the day as opposed to a lot of food at one time.”
Sam Eckels, a sophomore at Northeast Magnet High School in Wichita, said his school lunch portions — one recent day it was steak fingers, mashed potatoes with gravy, peas and applesauce — are adequate. But he packs fruit snacks and a sports drink to keep him going through after-school basketball conditioning at East High.
“The lunches are pretty good,” he said last week. “I don’t see any difference from last year.”
Kirkham, the Sharon Springs teacher, said she has started letting students eat snacks during her afternoon classes, even in art.
“I have quite a few football guys come in here, and I’m like, ‘Hurry up and eat so it doesn’t get on your project,’ ” she said. “I mean, they’re starving.
“This isn’t about some spoiled kids who want too much food.”