School lunches: Healthier with a side of mixed reviews

School lunches are changing due to new federal guidelines requiring school districts to serve more grains, fruits, and veggies. Connecticut students join the ranks of public school kids speaking out about portion sizes across the country.

AP Photo/Reading Eagle, Lauren A. Little/File
School lunch guidelines require one serving of veggies or fruit, smaller portions and lower calorie counts. Cups of colorful fresh vegetables at Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., make an appealing lunch display.

Schools are putting more fruits and vegetables on their menus, but those healthy foods aren't necessarily ending up in students' stomachs.

"They make students take stuff they don't want and it goes straight to the garbage pan," said Kurt Thomas, head custodian at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury.

Samantha Decena, a Kennedy volleyball player, said she eats the mozzarella sticks and strawberry milk, but throws away her fruit, vegetables, and meat because she finds it unappetizing.

"I could eat more, but I choose not to," Ms. Decena said.

Chris Wallace, director of food services for Education Connection, the vendor that oversees the lunch programs for Torrington, Litchfield, Thomaston and New Hartford, said she has heard similar complaints.

New federal guidelines say students must take one cup of fruit or vegetables, one cup of milk, two ounces of whole grains, and two ounces of meat or other protein.

At Naugatuck High School, meals without foods from each category come at a premium. A chicken Panini with milk is $3.60, but add a fruit or vegetable to that and the price is only $3.10. Students can grab as many fruits and vegetables as they wish and there are plenty of options, so while students might not like that whole grain bread, they have no excuse to go hungry, according to Kate Murphy, general manager of food services for Naugatuck Public Schools.

While fruit and vegetable portions have become larger, the old guidelines only required half a cup, grain and protein ceilings have been lowered. Federal guidelines call for 750 to 850 calories for a high school lunch.

That means pizza slices are smaller and students might get five chicken nuggets instead of six.

At Watertown High School, that has left a lot of rumbling tummies.

"A lot of times, kids have to go back and pay for a second lunch," said Madison Musco, a senior at Watertown High School.

She said vegetable options, like string beans, peas, and Brussels sprouts, aren't very popular with students.

Because the hot meals are so sparse, Musco said the grinder line has become longer, meaning some students don't have time to eat before the bell rings.

Adam Kuegler, a senior at Watertown, said students who don't like their options or can't get enough end up buying junk food from the school's vending machines.

To encourage students to take and eat their fruits and vegetables, Wallace said, the cafeteria staff places those options both along the food route and at each register so it's the last thing students see. Servers also prompt students with gentle reminders.

"It's a social time for them. They're not necessarily watching to make sure those foods are on their tray," Wallace said.

She said she also subtly encourages students to buy fat-free white milk instead of one percent or flavored milk by placing the healthier options in more prominent locations.

"That's not an easy sell," Wallace said.

Madeleine C. Diker, Cheshire's director of food and nutrition services, said students will eat more fruits and vegetables if they're cut into pieces. Cheshire offers fruit fresh in a cup, whole, and canned, and salads with spinach or Romaine lettuce.

Diker said custodians haven't reported any more waste than usual.

Some of these strategies are based on research on behavioral economics at Cornell University.

According to Smarterlunchrooms.org, moving and highlighting fruit increased sales by up to 102 percent and placing white milk first in the lunchroom coolers resulted in an increase of up to 46 percent in white milk sales.

Diker said the key is to offer a lot of choices so students will always find something they like. Cheshire High School has five hot choices including pizza, a made-to-order deli and a made-to-order salad.

"The kids are loving it. They like the bigger salads. It's been a big hit at this school," Diker said.

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