One student complains because his cafeteria no longer serves chicken nuggets. Another gripes that her school lunch just isn't filling. A third student says he's happy to eat an extra apple with his lunch, even as he's noshing on his own sub.
Leaner, greener school lunches served under new federal standards are getting mixed grades from students piling more carrots, more apples and fewer fatty foods on their trays.
"Now they're kind of forcing all the students to get the vegetables and fruit with their lunch, and they took out chicken nuggets this year, which I'm not too happy about," said Chris Cimino, a senior at Mohonasen High School in upstate New York.
Lunch lines at schools across the country cut through the garden now, under new US Department of Agriculture nutrition standards. Mohonasen students selecting pizza sticks this week also had to choose something from the lunch line's cornucopia of apples, bananas, fresh spinach and grape tomatoes, under the standards. Calorie counts are capped, too.
Most students interviewed in this suburban district near Schenectady seemed to accept the new lunch rules, reactions in line with what federal officials say they're hearing elsewhere. Still, some active teens complain the meals are too skimpy. And while you can give a kid a whole-wheat pita, you can't make him like it.
"I was just trying to eat it so I wouldn't be hungry later on," Marecas Wilson said of his pita sandwich served this week at Eastside Elementary in Clinton, Miss.
Though the fifth-grader judged his pita "nasty," he conceded: "The plum was very good."
Kim Gagnon, food service director in the Mohonasen district, said while students generally have been receptive to the fruits and vegetables, "we have noticed that kids are throwing it out or giving it to friends, leaving it on counters, so we haven't quite gotten there yet."
The guidelines approved by the USDA earlier this year set limits on calories and salt and phase in whole grains. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. They can still serve chocolate milk, but it has to be nonfat.
The biggest update to federal school-food guidelines in 15 years might please parents who recall washing down cheeseburgers and tater tots with full-fat chocolate milk. In Pueblo, Colo., Megan Murillo said she feels more comfortable letting her first-grader, Sophie, eat cafeteria-prepared lunches knowing there are more vegetable and whole grains.
Reactions in schools so far this fall have been positive, according to Kevin Concannon, the USDA's undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
"I don't mind it because I always got the extra apple and fruit and veggies and all that," said Anthony Sicilia, a senior at Mohonasen, who nonetheless was eating a Subway sub for lunch. "But I think it's good because it actually forces kids to eat healthy."
But new guidelines or no, many kids are still picky eaters.
In Clinton, Miss., the elementary students served flatbread roast beef sandwiches with grated cheese ate most of the meat but left large chunks of whole-wheat pita. Most plums were gnawed to the pits, and several salads were half eaten.
"I liked the meat but not this," fifth-grader Kenmari Williams said, pointing to his pita. "Every time you eat it, you get something white on your hands."
One thornier complaint is that the new lunches are too little for active teens now that the calorie range for high school lunches is 750 to 850. Rachelle Chinn, a freshman from Clarence, Mo., who plays softball, said school lunches are now so slight it once left her with a headache.
"The fruits and vegetables are good at first but once they wear off, I get hungry," she said. "It's just not enough to get me through the day."
Her mom, Chris Chinn, now packs her protein-heavy snacks like peanut butter crackers and granola bars. Chinn, a critic of what she calls the "one size fits all" standards, said many athletes aren't getting enough to eat. Similarly, Katie Pinke in Wishek, N.D., gave up on school lunches for her strapping freshman son Hunter and packs him meaty sandwiches.
Hunter is a 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound football player who, based on his size and active lifestyle, needs more than 4,700 calories daily to maintain his weight. He said lunches topping out at 850 calories aren't enough.
"I think it's kind of ridiculous that people say how much we get to eat when there are a lot of kids that are big," Hunter said. "When we can't have our meat and bread, for a guy especially, it's not fun."
Concannon noted the calorie ranges are adjusted for age, increasing as students move from elementary to middle to high school. If some children need more, Concannon said, schools have the option of offering an afternoon snack or parents can send snacks from home.
"If you look at colleges in the United States, if you've ever looked at the tables where they're feeding just the football players. Good God ... If you emulated that, we'd all be wearing size 48 suits by our 20s," he said. "You have to use common sense."
And just weeks into the school year, it's probably too early for final grades. In Mississippi, Keba Laird, child nutrition supervisor for the Clinton district, said she is phasing in the nutritional changes to help children grow accustomed to eating healthier.
"We don't want a revolt on our hands," she said. "We want them to enjoy eating with us."