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New school lunch requirements create waste, hungry kids

Remember those 20 days in 1981 when the Department of Agriculture considered making ketchup a vegetable in school lunches to help save money?  Those days are long gone.  With childhood obesity on the rise, the school lunch program is getting a makeover once again.

KBIA checked in with several mid-Missouri school districts where the new regulations have created an array of unintended consequences.

It’s lunchtime at New Franklin School.  More than hundred middle schoolers stand in line waiting for their blue tray.  On those trays is double the fruits and vegetables they got last year.

“There’s still a lot of food being wasted and it’s kind of shocking to see how much food is being thrown away,"  says Superintendent David Haggard.  He says he sees food being thrown away without being touched. 

In addition to more fruits and veggies, the new regulations cap middle school lunches at 700 calories - same as elementary schools. 

Stephanie Jennings is the nutrition director for Southern Boone School District. She says that’s changing the way students approach lunch.  

“Middle school entrées are actually the same size as the kindergartners," says Jennings. "We have middle schoolers that are hungry. We have growing boys in our middle schools that go through the lines at least a second time.”

It’s forcing districts to get creative. Jennings says in Southern Boone, students can put uneaten food, such as whole apples and oranges, into “share baskets” for their classmates to take freely.

“Obviously if they’re hungry I want them to eat it," Jennings says. "But if they’re only getting it because they have to, this gives them the opportunity to give it to someone else.

Columbia Public Schools is cooking more from scratch. 

Laina Fullum is in charge of nutrition for the district. She says this year, for the first time, food prep is done outside the cafeterias in small, centralized kitchens. 

“They’re going to create all the meals - quality meals- for all the other kitchens" she says.  "So we can control cost and we can control quality and we can concentrate our cook talent.” 

Columbia second grader Justin Goolsby says he loves to eat fruits, but only puts vegetables on his tray because he has to. 

“They taste yucky," says Goolsby, "they taste nasty, they taste terrible— I don’t even like the way that they smell.” 

Fullum says an original idea was to trick kids by disguising the fruits and vegetables in the meals. 

“Chefs and good cooks know how to create a dish that you will eat orange fruits and vegetables" says Fullum.
"You know, it doesn’t have to be a pumpkin wedge in order to get inside you and do what it needs to do. I believe, in fact, a pumpkin wedge is not going to get inside children, but a pumpkin soufflé will.  

But the USDA regulations require all produce be readily recognizable, so no sneaking them in soufflés. The district hired chef Brad Faith to make food appear more appetizing to the students. 

“As the government tells you limit the amount of fat, limit the amount of sodium that’s going into products," says Faith.  "That forces us to find other ways to make food flavorful. And it is difficult.”

Credit Kearston Winrow / KBIA

“That’s the most important thing - for the kids to eat and like it" says Jennings.  "Eat it and like it. It can look pretty, and we can spend a lot of money on food, but if they’re not going to eat it then we’re wasting our time.”Back at Southern Boone, Jennings says schools and parents need to communicate with kids about the importance of making healthy choices.

The new regulations are part of a 10-year plan, designed to make meals a little healthier over time. By next October, the regulations will apply to breakfast. 

Producers Kearston Winrow and Chelsea Stuart contributed to this story.

A version of this story appeared in Exam, KBIA's weekly program about education in mid-Missouri.

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