Lunch is served in a small gymnasium that doubles as the cafeteria at Elmwood-Murdock High School, a small, rural school in eastern Nebraska. After the period bell rings, a line quickly forms at the service window where trays are loaded with fish patties on whole wheat buns and small piles of curly fries.
With the emphasis on small.
Because at Elmwood-Murdock, like at other schools across the country, students this year have been put on a new diet.
Schools are making room for more fruits and vegetables on lunch trays by serving less meat and bread, and even curly fries. The nationwide changes are meant to counter childhood obesity, but some parents are complaining that their kids are still hungry after they clean their plates.
Parents like Tracy Zeorian, who lives nearby in the small town of Manley, Neb., noticed the changes early on.
“I was starting to see some complaints from the girls last spring about the changes in the meals and there not being enough food and why are they only giving us three chicken nuggets when they used to give us six,” Zeorian said.
Most days now, Zeorian packs lunches for her daughters Callie, a freshman, and Taylor, a senior. Some days they take a salad or a sandwich. Sometimes leftovers or a pack of mac-and-cheese.
The new school lunches are unsatisfying, especially with smaller portions of meat, she said.
“I read that they’re limited to 10 ounces (of meat) a week, which takes it down to 2 ounces a day. That’s nothing,” Zeorian said. “We are still meat and potatoes people, and you know when you’re being forced to become more of a vegetarian, something like that just doesn’t set well for the rest of us.”
The new guidelines, the first from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in more than a decade, include maximum limits rather than just the longstanding minimum requirements for things like calories, meat, and vegetables. Lunches for high-school students, for example, must add up to at least 750 calories, but no more than 850. Limits on sodium and fat are being phased in. Also students must take at least one fresh fruit or vegetable.
Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, supports the changes. She said a lack protein is not a nationwide problem, but obesity is.
Around 18 percent of teenagers in the U.S. are obese and face a higher risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes because of it. Part of dealing with obesity, Schwartz said, is changing the traditional idea that meat makes the meal.
“The real problems are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy,” Schwartz said. “The idea here was to decrease the amount of protein and focus on making sure kids had enough room for these other foods they really weren’t getting enough of.”
The challenge is finding ways to make healthier meals more appetizing before students leave the lunch program.
Elmwood-Murdock district superintendent, Dan Novak has found it is hard to balance healthy portions with 400 students’ expectations. For instance, to keep meatball subs on the menu the school had to cut the bun in half. Literally. The bun needed to be 1.5 ounces of bread instead of 3 ounces.
“So the kids remember getting the large Italian roll with the meatballs in it and this year they got what looked like the equivalent of a hot dog bun,” Novak said.
Sales of school lunch at Elmwood-Murdock have fallen 7 percent to 10 percent so far this year. Novak said when prices go up and portions go down some parents become upset and begin sending lunch from home, which may not do much for the obesity epidemic.
“Those lunches aren’t healthier than what we were serving last year,” Novak said.
If the rules were flexible to allow a few more calories or a little more meat, Novak said, schools could satisfy more kids and parents.
Industry groups like the Farm Bureau and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are recording that kind of feedback to possibly pitch changes to the USDA. A bill introduced in the House of Representatives would roll back the new rules entirely.
But Schwartz likes the rules as they are. She said it is up to parents to make the most of the changes by working with their schools and their kids.
“Part of parenting is being a little tougher and saying you might be mad that you don’t get as many chicken nuggets as you did before, but here’s an apple and that’s better for you and that’s really the right thing to do,” Schwartz said.
At the Zeorian house, Taylor, the senior, spoke up on this point. She was not a fan of the new version of the meatball sub and does not believe her peers can be forced to take up new eating habits.
“When will we finally hit the point where a kid’s going to choose an apple over a bag of chips, said Taylor Zeorian, who wants to study to become a chef after high school. “I don’t know if that will ever happen because we’re kids. We want to eat junk food. It’s what we live off of.”
It could be that battling obesity will come down to winning the hearts, minds, and stomachs of hungry teenagers.