As students push their biodegradable trays through the cafeteria at Brookline’s John D. Runkle School, a transformed lunchtime array extends before them: rows and rows of steamed broccoli and scallions, carrots and celery, pineapple and oranges.
The star of the meal, promoted from its previous role as a side dish, is a baked potato. The rolls are whole wheat. The milk is low fat.
Three months into the first school year following new federal rules designed to help kids eat more healthily, students across the country have protested.
The new requirements, championed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her campaign against childhood obesity, limit the amount of grains, protein, sodium, and saturated fat that school lunches subsidized by the US Department of Agriculture may contain.
Trans fats are banned. All students must have at least three-quarters of a cup of vegetables on their tray. For the first time, calories per meal are capped.
After the new regulations took effect, some local schools saw fewer students buying lunch — about 35 percent fewer, for instance, at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High in Lexington.
Many students bemoan the smaller portions. In Brookline, students target the smaller bagels that are being offered this fall.
And some school systems have made seemingly contradictory changes to abide by the new rules. Shrewsbury no longer serves a popular spinach salad, after determining that the ingredients, which included hard-boiled eggs, added up to too much protein when combined with other dishes. Minuteman got rid of its salad bar because school officials couldn’t control the portions of protein or grains students would take.
Nationally, students have fought hardest against the smaller portions, with limits of between 650 and 850 calories, depending on grade level.
Students in Kansas made a spoof video, with more than 1 million hits on YouTube, called “We Are Hungry.” (Michelle Obama’s video lauding the new rules got just 3,865 views.)
Wisconsin students boycotted school lunches, and started bringing food from home.
Athletes say that the leaner lunches do not give them the energy they need for their after-school workouts.
This fall, US Representatives Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Steve King of Iowa, both Republicans, introduced a bill they called the “No Hungry Kids Act.” It would repeal the new USDA rules and prohibit calorie limits on school lunches.
Karen McGrail, director of the John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University, points out that schools can serve unlimited amounts of fruit to students who are still hungry after they eat lunch. She also said students, especially younger children who grow up with the new guidelines, will eventually become accustomed to them.
“I always think of the change that has to happen in eating habits,” she said. “It takes time. It takes motivation. It certainly takes persistence.”
Schools must follow the new federal school lunch regulations to receive cash reimbursements from the USDA. Schools receive larger reimbursements to help cover the cost of free and reduced-price meals for children who qualify based on family income, and smaller reimbursements for lunches sold to students who pay the full price.
State regulations on other food sold at schools, including items offered a la carte and in vending machines, have also become stricter this year, requiring those foods to be healthier — with fewer calories, and less sugar and fat.
Officials at some area schools are worried about the vast amounts of food — especially the required vegetables and fruit — that students have been throwing away this fall.
“They were not eating the veggies and fruit with great frequency” in past years, said Alden Cadwell, director of food services for the Brookline school system, “so giving them more doesn’t make them eat it.”
Cadwell, a former adviser for the television series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” found a way to give students still hungry after lunch more food: free seconds, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Only students who have finished their entire meal, including vegetables, are eligible. The USDA signed off on the practice, Cadwell said, because the seconds were free and equally available to all students, including those who get free or reduced-price lunches.
On a recent afternoon at the Runkle School, many of the younger students moving through the line seem happy with their prospects for lunch. “I would like potatoes, please,” says one fourth-grade boy. Then he sees the rolls and smiles. “Oh, yay!”
But some of the older students are a harder sell. Many remain irked at the shrinkage that the bagels have undergone this fall.
“I’ve never seen a bagel in my life that’s this small,” says Sophia Glazerman, a seventh-grader who now brings her lunch from home every day.
“It’s whole wheat and it’s this small,” adds a friend and classmate Iman Arande .
They also mourn the disappearance of ice cream from the cafeteria in recent years.
Cadwell, who eats in one of his district’s cafeterias each day, has been trying not only to remake the school meals but to make them palatable to students. He introduced the baked-potato bar as a way to “put vegetables on a vegetable.”
He is also trying small changes that he hopes will make vegetables more appealing. In the past, for instance, cafeteria workers cooked a day’s worth of green beans in the morning. “By the time the second lunch rolls around, they’re pretty soggy and gross,” Cadwell said. “Nobody likes to eat those vegetables.”
Now, cafeteria workers cook the beans batch by batch, closer to the time they’re served.
Still, fewer students are buying lunch these days. Across the district, about 30 percent of Brookline’s students buy lunch, down from about 35 percent last year, Cadwell said.
“Our parents are paying $3 a meal for these foods and they’re such small portions,” said Glazerman. “You can never get full.”
At Minuteman, the number of students buying school lunch has dropped about 35 percent from last year, said Superintendent Edward Bouquillon. The decrease, he said, includes students who are eligible for free or reduced meals.
Bouquillon is frustrated that the new federal rules do not consider how much students weigh. Lunches for high school students cannot exceed 850 calories; for elementary students, they must contain fewer than 650 calories.
“We have freshmen who weigh 85 pounds and student-athletes who weigh 280 pounds,” Bouquillon said, “and yet the portion size can’t accommodate the difference, in the regulations as we understand them.”
In Shrewsbury, the cafeteria used to serve Caesar salad with pizza. But now the chicken and croutons add too much protein and grains to the meal, so the district has ditched the salad this year, said Beth Nichols, its director of food services.
The school district kept a salad bar at the high school this fall but removed anything that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable, such as croutons, hard-boiled eggs, and turkey slices, Nichols said. She has seen some high school students buying two lunches each day to get full, while other students are bringing lunch from home, she said.
In September, the district brought in $10,000 less in lunch sales than in the same month last year, she said.
The calorie limits for students are based on the premise that students have eaten a full breakfast, Nichols said, but her experience suggests that most high school students do not.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Nichols said. “We can serve potato chips, but we can’t serve our whole-wheat pasta salad anymore in our deli because the kids will get too many grains.
“To get the equivalent of what they got last year, they would have to spend $6 to $7,” said Nichols. “A lot of the regulations are great, but this one-size-fits-all, without a lot of wiggle room, is really challenging.”
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.