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Students still getting used to healthier school lunches that are not as suited to their tastes

By Kentucky Health News

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 14, 2013) — School lunches look and taste different than they did before new federal nutrition standards kicked in, and that has caused more food to end up in garbage cans and more students to bring a lunch from home, according to an article from the October issue of Kentucky School Board Advocate, a magazine published by the Kentucky School Boards Association.

Kindergarten children eating lunch“We’re serving more and it’s going in the garbage,” Estill County school food service director Belinda Puckett told KSBA reporter Madelynn Coldiron. ”The (students) have to take a fruit or a vegetable and it’s going in the garbage.”

Others think that with time, students will adapt to the new menu, which has more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fewer calories and sweets.

“It really is the same food, just a little different presentation,” said the state Department of Education’s Valerie Crouch, who provides technical assistance and training to food service directors, told Coldiron.

The biggest challenge, Marshall County school food service director Beth Cunningham said, “is the speed at which we have had to adopt this. … Kids don’t like change.”

The timetable for transition to the new menus was short, so kids had to adjust quickly, Sabrina Jewell of Henderson, president of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association. She said food suppliers hadn’t perfected offerings that would meet the guidelines, but the products have since improved, Coldiron reports.

Many schools have seen a decline in the number of students eating school meals, with some districts dropping as much as 10 percent to 20 percent, according to Jewell.  This translates into a loss of federal reimbursement dollars for those meals not purchased, Coldiron notes.

Smaller districts are affected more deeply by fewer lunches being purchased, because any small change makes a big difference in a small budget.

The state surveyed food service directors to determine the reason for the drop in participation, but the survey had too many variables to pinpoint a single factor, Crouch told Coldiron. Two variables were an increase in the cost of lunch in some districts, and an increase in the number of schools joining a federal program that provides free meals to all students regardless of income.

Budget challenges add yet another dimension to the new federal nutrition guidelines, Coldiron reports. “Fresh produce costs more than canned or frozen,” said Jewell, whose Henderson County bill for produce doubled last year.

Another concern is that the students are still going home hungry.

“We have a 68 percent free and reduced lunch rate,” said Puckett, of Estill County. She told Coldiron that parents are complaining about children coming home hungry. “I think they need to come look at these kids who aren’t eating and they’re not getting enough to eat like what they used to.”

Plans are in place this year to make new recipes and food displays to encourage kids to eat, Jewell said.  Students who reject school meals are either bringing their lunch from home or not eating at all, and neither is a good outcome, Jewell told Coldiron.

“We don’t get to police their lunchboxes,” she said. “It’s whatever is sitting on the shelf: high carbs, high fat, low nutritional value.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.