School lunch is not what it used to be.
The jokes have written themselves over the years, stereotyping cafeteria meals ladled up by lunch ladies, trays filled with mystery meat and canned fruit cocktail, with ketchup counted as a vegetable.
A peek into Centre County lunchrooms tells a different story. State College high school students feasted on baked sweet potatoes and General Tso’s chicken last week. At Bald Eagle Area schools, chef salads with leafy romaine lettuce are a daily staple. At Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School, the fruits are fresh watermelon and sliced oranges.
The food is undoubtedly healthier. But are kids actually eating it?
Last week, first lady Michelle Obama, who has been championing healthier standards in schools through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was battling House Republicans and members of the School Nutrition Association who want to see some of the requirements placed on schools in recent years loosened.
Locally, the people responsible for feeding schoolchildren see both sides. They want the focus on nutrition, but they also want enough freedom to make food that kids will actually eat.
“We have had a fairly smooth transition to the new regulations, and I suspect that is because we had been slowly moving toward them for 10-plus years,” said Megan Schaper, food service director at State College.
District officials had been working on more diverse fruit and veggie selections and heartier portions of those healthier choices long before the U.S. Department of Agriculture required it. They also had been working to switch to whole-grain breads.
Still, they had their hurdles.
“The last few changes that we did need to make have been met with some resistance,” Schaper said. Those changes included beefing up the whole grains in things like pasta and pizza crusts. Students were “a little less accepting” of those, as well as whole-grain breading on chicken nuggets.
Laura Frye, director of food services at Philipsburg-Osceola, sees the same thing, so she welcomes a slower roll-out to requirements, allowing production to catch up with demands.
“The changes proposed in Congress seem to be more along the lines of extending time lines on implementation of sodium limits, as well as implementing that all grain items need to be whole grain rich, as opposed to 50 percent of bread/grain items currently, while still maintaining calorie guidelines on the entire meal,” she said. “Both of these delays are practical in nature because the manufacturers/vendors have to formulate product to meet the guidelines that not only meet the guideline on paper, but are palatable and acceptable to student populations ... the challenge has been with tortilla wraps/breadsticks/pizza crusts/pastas that have not yet been manufactured to maintain appealing texture upon cooking/holding.”
Chef Mark Ott is director of dining services at Bald Eagle Area. He says part of the problem is that rules are being instituted on science that is constantly changing.
“Nutrition is a relatively new science and it has not yet established firm scientifically proven foundations on which to base these guidelines. It is all still evolving,” he said, pointing to the egg as an example.
Over the years, studies have championed it as an important part of breakfast, then vilified it for its cholesterol content, then lauded it again as an excellent source of protein.
“One size fits all does not work well with school meals. California may be the vegetable basket of the nation and students there have easier access and more exposure to fruits and vegetables, but we are a strict meat-and-potatoes area and the requirement to take a fruit and/or vegetable does not go over well here.”
All three admit that in the years since USDA requirements have changed, numbers have slipped for those eating cafeteria lunches. BEA’s went from a “good steady historic 78 percent” to 68 percent, despite encouraging efforts.
“Part of it is the student perception that they are getting less food and they are hungry because of that. In reality, if they took their full portion of fruit and vegetable, they would be getting much more than they had in the past. In general, they do not take the allowable portion, and they don’t want to,” Ott said.
At State College schools, about 3 percent fewer students have been eating school lunch over the past two years. Schaper says that follows “many years of improved participation each year.”
P-O has seen a slightly mixed response. High school numbers are down about 3 percent, but at the elementary level, participation remains about the same.
Schaper worries that regulations require districts to spend more money.
“The changes and reduced participation make school meals more expensive to prepare, so lunch prices are increasing at a time when many families don’t feel like they can afford to pay more,” she said.
“I think the intent of the HHFKA is good,” Ott said. “Teach students what a good and healthy balanced meal is. What is not happening from the USDA is any education of parents so that they could reinforce with healthy meals at home. It is all on the school services.”