Treasure Valley students resist healthy lunches

The Boise and Meridian cafeterias tweak their menus to comply with federal rules and satisfy kids’ palates.

broberts@idahostatesman.comSeptember 1, 2013 

  • DISTRICTS REPORT DROP IN BUSINESS

    Menu changes and rising prices likely took their toll on business in the Meridian and Boise cafeterias last school year. But public school lunches were up overall in Idaho.

    Æ Boise: Lunches down 8 percent, from 2.39 million in 2011-12 to 2.2 million in 2012-13.

    Æ Meridian: Lunches down 4 percent, from 2.7 million in 2011-12 to 2.6 million in 2012-13.

    Æ Idaho (including juvenile detention centers and other nonschools that participate in the National School Lunch Program): Down 5 percent, from 26.8 million in 2011-12 to 25.3 million in 2012-13. (2012-13 numbers may change slightly.)

  • BILL ROBERTS

  • Bill covers education for the Statesman. He has focused most recently on new standards coming this fall and on education reform proposals to improve Idaho schools.

  • WILL REGULATIONS AFFECT FUNDRAISERS?

    School vending machines and fundraising events could find themselves subject to nutrition guidelines just like the school cafeterias over the next couple of years.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering regulations as part of the Competitive Food Act that would require other foods sold on campus to meet nutritional guidelines.

    The exact rules aren’t in place yet and school officials can’t say exactly who could be covered. School fundraisers could be affected if the food is sold during school hours on campus, according to the USDA. Vending-machine food sales are also likely to be affected.

Whole-grain macaroni and cheese was a bust.

Pinto beans? Kids curled their lips.

Making room on the tray for a required fruit or vegetable — not so savory.

A year after the federal government rushed in new healthful food guidelines for school lunches, demand at cafeterias in Boise, Meridian and statewide is down as schools trimmed meat portions, inserted legumes into the menu once a week and put extra emphasis on whole grains.

“Last year, the pizza tasted like cardboard,” acknowledged Jean Dean, Meridian schools nutrition services supervisor.

Across the country, school districts watched kids abandon cafeterias as the $11 billion National School Lunch Program — which reimburses schools for meals served — instituted more stringent rules on what could be served.

Isolated cases have been reported this year of districts leaving the program because losses from decreased lunch purchases were greater than the government reimbursements.

No Idaho public school system has left the program, said Colleen Fillmore, Child Nutrition Program director for the State Department of Education.

Exiting the program makes little economic sense for Meridian or Boise schools because of the money each gets from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — largely reimbursement for meals served to low-income students. Federal reimbursement covers $6 million of Boise’s $9 million food service budget; in Meridian it pays for $5 million of the district’s $9.5 million budget.

TAKE YOUR VEGGIES

Better nutrition has been on the radar for years, and Idaho and its schools already were moving in that direction. In 2009, the Idaho Department of Education set new dietary standards that called for limiting fats, salt and sugar and increasing whole grains in school meals.

But federal regulations adopted the summer before they went into effect for the 2012-13 school year gave schools little opportunity to prepare kids for the change, said Peggy Bodnar, Boise School District supervisor of food and nutrition services.

Rules include the requirement that students must have a fruit or vegetable before they clear the cashier.

“You know if you tell children they have to take fruit (or vegetable) on their plate, it doesn’t go over very well,” said Bodnar.

To make it work, Meridian School District has purchased fresh fruit. It pays $16 for a pack of nine cantaloupes for kids’ trays. About half of it winds up in the trash, said Dean.

Watermelon, which costs about $4.50 a melon, does better.

HEALTH TRUMPS TASTE

A race to get products into cafeteria lines initially led some food companies to meet the dietary requirements, if not the taste preferences of kids eating the food, Bodnar said.

For example, whole-grain mac and cheese, with its brownish noodles. “It’s an adjustment,” Bodnar said.

Other problems included rules on whole grains that led to hamburger buns that lacked the density and flavor kids like.

One mother called Dean to complain that the overall calorie intake was too little for her strapping football-player son, who was still hungry after lunch.

To keep the hunger pangs at bay, Dean says, the Meridian district is experimenting with an a la carte table where, for an extra price, students can buy a second helping of an entree for $2.

MORE EXPENSIVE, TOO

On top of all the changes, districts increased some prices as part of a government formula meant to assure that low-income reimbursements were not going to people who could pay.

Rising prices also reflect increased food costs, Fillmore said. State food services officials are working with districts on ways to lower costs and have created a team with expertise in financial management to help districts better manage their food services.

As districts start their second year under the guidelines — with more new rules on ingredients such as sodium on the way — life should be a little more appetizing in the cafeteria line, Dean and Bodnar say.

Food companies are putting the taste and eye appeal back into their products. White-colored whole grains are making their way into the schools — which could remedy the brown mac-and-cheese problem.

Whole grain requirements are changing to give schools a better chance at a tasty hamburger bun. Meat allotments are increasing.

And students seem to be getting used to some of the new food they see in the cafeteria, even if they don’t always see it at home or at their favorite burger joint.

“Last year, by the end, we had them eating sweet potato fries that were made in the oven,” said Dean. “We had them beginning to eat more lettuce.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service