AUGUSTA, Maine — School lunches of the past, featuring piles of limp fries, soggy hamburgers and undercooked pizza, were not something that most students enjoyed or even paid attention to. That all changed in the past few decades, however, as the nation grew more health conscious and obesity rates rose.
Concern for the health of future generations prompted first lady Michelle Obama to champion the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which overhauled federal school lunch rules. The legislation set limits on calories and salt, put more fruits and vegetables on cafeteria trays and phased in more whole grains. The regulations also dictated how much of certain food groups could be served.
The new rules, which went into effect in August, have already been modified. Several lawmakers late last year wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture saying kids were not getting enough to eat.
In response, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told members of Congress last month that the department would do away with daily and weekly limits of meats and grains.
Students in school districts across the state have had varied responses to the new regulations since they were implemented. Most school officials said students are adapting to the changes, but some are also decrying the amount of food being wasted every day.
“I don’t think that the changes to the lunch program were that hard to cope with here because we were already serving a lot of healthy foods,” Gail Lombardi, program manager of Child Nutrition Services at the Maine Department of Education, said in a recent interview. “Schools were already serving whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables and had been doing so for two or three years.”
More than 189,000 students in Maine have access to the national school lunch program, according to figures provided by the state. Lombardi said that while some districts had to make a few modifications, such as cutting down on the size of the sandwich rolls they used, there were few hiccups in rolling out the new requirements.
“In most cases, children are being served the same food,” she said. “But instead of just plain old pizza or chicken nuggets, they are made with whole grains. They can still get chocolate milk, but it is skim milk, and they are being served more fruits and vegetables. There have been a few complaints, but nothing widespread.”
In SAD 1 in Presque Isle, Kathy Allen, food services director, said she is not seeing a big increase in wasted food or students bringing their lunches because of the changes. The district has offered oven baked fries, whole grain chicken patties and nuggets for years, she said, and the students are used to them.
Sandra Hodgins, director of food services for the Brewer School Department, said students there are also used to healthier food. She said that high school students have been more adventurous and have tried more of the newer, healthier fare on the menu and she has not heard many complaints. She acknowledged that she has seen a lot of fruit and vegetable waste in the elementary schools, but said that is not unusual.
“It is hard to get kids to eat vegetables anyway, and now you are giving them a larger serving of the same vegetable,” she said. “They’re going to throw it out.”
Chris Greenier, school nutrition director for SAD 22 in Hampden, said students are adapting to the new requirements. At Hampden Academy, several new ethnic dishes have caught on with students. She is hearing some complaints, especially about the amount of whole grain foods being served. High school students have also been vocal about the amount of wasted food.
Since the rules require bigger servings of fruits and vegetables, the schools have to offer them to get federal reimbursement for the meals.
That means putting food on a tray even if a student doesn’t want it.
“They don’t understand why you have to stick an apple on their tray even after they told you they don’t want it,” she said. “And it just goes in the trash.”
As in other districts, Greenier said a menu featuring more whole grains, fresh vegetables and lower-fat choices was introduced three or four years ago, so students were not shocked by the changes. But she said elementary students are dumping out a lot of what is put on their trays.
“I think that when parents put vegetables on their child’s plate, they give them a little bit and let them try them and get used to them,” she said late last week. “Now, we are putting half a cup or more of fruits and vegetables in front of them. It’s overwhelming them. I see that some kids don’t even look at them. They just go right in the trash.”
A grandparent of one student contacted her, she said, angry because he felt his grandchild was being taught to waste food.
School officials said it is difficult to measure the amount of food waste beyond just watching to see how much students are dumping into the trash cans. Several said they have spent more on food this year, but noted that the economy has factored into the higher prices.
Greenier thinks that the lifting of the weekly limits of meats and grains will help make the transition easier for students, as cafeterias will be allowed to put diced meats, meat alternatives and pasta salads back on their salad bars.
“I think there are a lot of kinks to be worked out,” she said of the program. “And I don’t know if we are ever going to get it perfect. I think we just have to keep trying.”