During their lunch period at Parkway West High School, a group of senior boys had various complaints: One often goes to his next class hungry; one just paid $7 to get three orders of toasted ravioli to barely satisfy him; and another likened the baked french fries to cardboard.
Lines used to be out the door for sandwiches brought in from fast-food chains such as Chick-fil-A or Arby's, they said. But with federal nutrition guidelines this year extending beyond the basic tray of food to the popular a la carte items, lines rarely run more than a dozen deep.
"It's basically tree bark now," said senior Stone Ramatowski. "That's all you can eat."
Health advocates applauded new federal school nutrition guidelines that began taking effect two years ago, but students are grumbling, mainly older students long used to their hamburgers and nachos, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Disgruntled teens are sharing unappetizing pictures of their lunches on social media under the hashtag "ThanksMichelleObama" — a sarcastic nod to the first lady, who championed the changes.
At Parkway and other districts across the area, as many as 20 percent fewer students are buying their lunches. Statewide, the number of lunches served has dropped 11 percent since the 2009-10 school year, according to the latest figures from last year.
Healthy habits may be changing, however. Younger students are more accepting of the changes, school officials report. And some studies show kids are eating healthier.
"The little guys are eating more fruits and vegetables than they were three years ago," said Marlene Pfeiffer, director of food services for the Parkway School District. "It takes a few years to get the palate turned around, and that's harder for older students."
Sweeping changes to food sold in schools were prompted by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act passed in 2010. The legislation aimed to reduce America's childhood obesity epidemic and lifelong health risks by improving access to nutritional meals. New rules increased the servings of fruits and vegetables and set requirements on the amount of whole grains, calories, fat and sodium in food.
Schools must follow the rules to receive access to lower-priced food and federal meal subsidies, as well as a 6-cent bonus per meal for meeting the new standards.
The legislation took effect in the 2012-13 school year, with only the free and reduced-price meals for low-income children having to meet the nutritional guidelines. This school year, the requirements extended to everything sold in schools — including the snack or a la carte lines.
Vending machines are now filled with granola bars, baked chips and zero-calorie juice drinks. Gone are parent organization fundraisers like doughnut days and Valentine candy grams (five fundraisers can be held a year, but must only last one day and be closely documented).
Baked sweet potato tater tots and whole-grain breaded chicken breasts on wheat buns have replaced french fries and chicken nuggets. Pizza has whole-grain crust, low-fat cheese and reduced-sodium tomato sauce.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this summer that 90 percent of schools have met the new standards, and only 0.15 percent dropped out of the program because of struggles. Despite concerns about the impact on participation and costs, the USDA said in the first year of the new rules, schools saw a nationwide increase in revenue of about $200 million from school lunches. Participation increased in many districts in Los Angeles, Dallas and cities in Florida, the agency reported.
A check with some area school districts paints a less rosy picture. "Everybody is looking the same way: Sales are down," said Paul Becker, nutrition services director for Fort Zumwalt School District and recent president of the Missouri School Nutrition Association. "Some are struggling more than others in understanding and implementing rules, because it's very complex."
Becker said food sales are down from last year in Fort Zumwalt by 10 percent. "Do we have to look at cutting staff hours? What other ways can we save money on product?" he said. "These are things we have to look at if the trend continues."
Pfeiffer, at Parkway, said the requirement that a fruit or vegetable be served with every meal has her paying five times more for produce. "The amount I budget for fruits and vegetables is like 75 percent of my food budget," she said.
School districts with a higher percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals are seeing smaller drops in food purchases. Mehlville School District has seen about a 3 percent drop in sales, said nutrition services director Katie Koester. "Unfortunately, 30 percent of our students come to school hungry. Choosing not to eat breakfast or lunch at school is not an option for them."
Adding to the directors' frustrations are manufacturers failing to keep up with demand. Popular items such as baked Doritos and whole-grain versions of Rice Krispies Treats and Sara Lee muffins can be hard to get.
"We have to go to the other, less-popular brands, and students eat with their eyes," Pfeiffer said. "If they don't recognize the wrapper, they don't like it. It's weird."
Principal Jeremy Mitchell of Parkway West High said parents of athletes complain the food is not enough to satisfy their active children. "The parents say they need more calories," Mitchell said. "They are running three miles a day. They are wrestling. They are here for practice until 6:30 p.m."
The USDA has made some concession on pasta, allowing waivers of the whole-grain requirement. School food service directors are hoping that the last change to come — a further reduction in sodium content — will be dropped. "We can't reduce the sodium content any more," Pfeiffer said. "The palatability is just not there."
Schools are trying to make the healthy food as appealing as possible. Parkway hired a chef, Dan Flick, who created a popular Southwest chicken salad, used black beans to make brownies and put mashed sweet potatoes into a spice cake. "Chef Dan" has taken different recipes of hummus (which he calls bean dip), salsa and other items for taste tests with students.
Packaging sandwiches in shiny wrappers, vegetables in plaid cartons and salads in shiny bowls also works well in getting kids to grab them off the shelves.
"We bought black bowls that really make the food pop," Becker said. "You wouldn't believe what a black background does when you put carrots or a salad in it."
Rockwood School District nutrition services director Carmen Fischer said district elementary schools moved recess before lunch so students are thirstier and hungrier. Serving breakfast of whole wheat pancakes or french toast for lunch has also been popular.
Fischer has also learned to keep some culinary secrets. "We've always had a turkey hot dog, but when we called it a turkey hot dog, kids stopped eating it," she said. "Even though it was the same hot dog, they saw it was turkey and thought it wasn't any good."
Many of the directors say the changes need to be coupled with education about the importance of nutrition.
"If students are aware of why it is important to eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they might be more willing to put them on their tray," Koester said. "We don't do algebra or chemistry every day, but we eat every day. So, providing students with nutrition education will hopefully help them make better choices in the school cafeterias, at home and while eating out."
Elementary school children have definitely been the easiest to win over, officials say. At Claymont Elementary in the Parkway district, boys and girls in several grades said they love the new salad bar with cucumbers, carrots and beets. "There's a lot more fruit in it, and the sides are all healthy this year," said fourth-grader Grace Putnam. "I really like the cottage cheese."
A recent Harvard study found that under the new rules, kids are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. Even senior Will Clark at Parkway West admits he's eating more vegetables, and they actually fill him up. "I'm hungry, so I'm going to eat whatever they throw up there," he said.
The study also showed the new standards did not increase food waste. But area school officials report they see kids not touching the fruit or vegetable on their tray. Instead of throwing produce away, students are encouraged to place the unwanted fruit in a bowl to share with others.
The directors say they are hopeful the downward trend of students not taking advantage of the nutritious meals at school will reverse.
"It's the secondary schools that are harder to get used to it," Becker said. "We will have success in elementary school, and when we get kids used to the food in elementary school, they will eat it in high school."--Michele Munz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch