Parents, Principals Don't Like School Lunch Rules

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Beef jerky, Rice Krispie treats and four varieties of Mazzio's pizza are a few of the à la carte choices in the lunchroom at Jenks High School outside Tulsa, Okla., where football is king and the players have royal appetites. But those items, plus the one-pint cartons of whole chocolate milk beloved by many players — average weight on the offensive line is 250 lb. — could be gone now that the federal government has issued new restrictions on fat and sodium offered during the school day.

Same goes for the ice cream bars and Fruit Roll-Ups that make 7th grade tolerable for middle schoolers nationwide. And say goodbye to the cart laden with baked goods that a special-education class in Tooele, Utah, wheels around school every Friday to raise money for needy classmates.

"Just a typical unfunded mandate," sighs Jenks principal Mike Means as he contemplates guidelines predicted to cost schools an extra 14 cents per lunch — of which the feds will pay only 6 cents. Washington hopes that school districts will get more creative in controlling expenses and menu planning. Principal Means thinks kids about to enter the real world need to learn how to make choices on their own — without the government breathing down their gullet. Do they want a slice of pepperoni pizza or a healthier serving of turkey-pepperoni pie?

All of this is looming because the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January proposed sweeping new nutrition standards for school lunches: limiting French fries and starch to one cup per week, lowering calorie limits and sodium levels, replacing whole milk with skim or 1% and mandating leafy greens and red and orange veggies like squash. The rules will affect some 30 million lunches served in America each school day.

Next on the USDA's target list: à la carte items and so-called competitive foods — like the Mazzio's and Arby's available in the Jenks cafeteria and the Donatos pizza being served at high schools in Columbus, Ohio. The USDA will issue those rules in coming months, but some districts, anticipating a crackdown, have already banned the pizza parties widely used as rewards for good behavior. (The department has set up a period for public comment that ends in April; most of the new regulations are expected to go into effect in the 2012-13 school year.)

The new rules stem from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 signed into law by President Obama in December. Nutrition activists say the need for change is urgent in a country where juvenile diabetes is rampant and 17% of all children are obese. Not just overweight: obese.

"We're not trying to be the cupcake police," says Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA. "But let's look at helping kids make the right choices." The federal government "has the responsibility to lead the discussion" on America's eating habits, Daniel adds. "If we don't turn this epidemic of childhood obesity around, this will be the first generation of kids with a shorter life span than their parents. This is the perfect time for people to discuss this."

Many schools around the country had already started making changes — moving to whole-grain pasta and pizza crust, for example. Wellness initiatives are widespread, leading school officials to scrutinize their menus while PTAs and booster clubs rethink their fundraisers. Candy-filled vending machines and soda coolers are mostly gone. At the school carnival, the ring toss might feature bottles of zero-calorie flavored water instead of Orange Crush.

But the yummy stuff makes more money — and that's a big deal in an era of tight school budgets. "We had a Chick-fil-A night and made $800," says Emily Burns, a mother of three who sits on a PTA board at a Tulsa elementary school. "People feel bad" about the fried food, she admits a bit sheepishly, "but it's $800, and that can buy a piece of equipment for our school."

To critics, the prospect of a federal crackdown on bake sales is about as appetizing as mystery meat and canned peas. "If Washington can decide whether you can have a brownie in Tooele, Utah, what can't they decide?" asks state representative Ken Ivory, a Republican from Salt Lake City. Ivory plans to feature the special-education class and its weekly charity bake sale in a short film, part of a campaign titled Where's the Line? Those high school kids, many of them dealing with Downs syndrome or autism, earn about $100 per week to spend on things like shoes for students who can't afford them.

The new rules will not affect concession stands at sporting events or after-hours fundraisers; the USDA has yet to decide what the law intended when it allowed "infrequent" bake sales.

Perhaps the ultimate question is: Will kids eat the healthier stuff? The USDA won't be reaching into backpacks or lunch boxes. Children have been complaining about school lunches for generations, and it may be overly optimistic to think that sweet potatoes will change that.

On the à la carte line at Jenks, healthier options have been introduced: baked chips, fruit cups and whole-grain Animal Crackers. Pat Meadows, who runs the school district's nutrition program, frets that if the changes get too radical, kids will rebel and parents will go back to sending in Lunchables and Twinkies. One horrified cafeteria manager e-mailed Meadows recently that a young boy appeared to be eating a 6-oz. bag of Cheetos — all he'd brought that day. Translation: 960 calories, 60 g of fat, 1,740 mg of sodium.

In Dallas, Dora Rivas heads the food and child-nutrition operation for the city's 160,000 public-school students. Many of the kids are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and this is their only square meal of the day. So she wants it to be healthy.

Rivas has been trying to get ahead of the curve, with mixed results. Kids have agreeably given up their traditional PB&Js on white bread for natural peanut-butter sandwiches with sliced bananas on whole wheat. The reaction has been lukewarm to the hummus plate with carrots, celery and flat bread. "People aren't lining up for it, but we have kids trying it," Rivas says. They'll fork down leafy greens like spinach and mustard greens. But they draw the line at orange vegetables. "Squash," Rivas says, "is a challenge."