Gone are the flavored milks, sugary cookies and greasy pizza from the lunch line. Federal initiatives supported by a campaign to stay fit from first lady Michelle Obama have replaced the foods readily available outside of school with healthier options, and students are rebelling.
When school started last week, so did a new lunch menu. The menu includes two large-scale changes in reaction to the 2010 federal regulation Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act Marietta and Cobb schools are rolling out in stages, nutritionists said.
Whole-wheat flour is the main ingredient in all wheat products, instead of white flour. And food is being produced differently so sodium levels are lower.
“All items need to be whole-grain rich, which means they are 50 percent whole grain, or it’s the first thing on the ingredients list,” said Kelley Toon, a registered and licensed dietician with Cobb County schools.
The restrictions are meant to keep students healthy, Toon said, but some students are on the brink of protesting the menu changes.
“The new food is good for me, but I don’t really like it,” said Ryan Moore, a senior at Hillgrove High School.
High school students complained the new regulations are too restrictive on what students are allowed to eat.
“All these kids are preparing to go to college where they’re not going to be restricted,” said Catherine Jones, a senior at Hillgrove High School. “I think for elementary school kids, it’s OK. But for high schoolers, we should be able to eat what we like.”
Jones said she plans to start a petition against the new whole-grain menu and wants students to join her.
“I guess it’s healthier, but I know a lot of kids who aren’t eating it,” Jones said.
Cynthia Downs, the executive director of food and nutrition services for Cobb schools, said she hasn’t seen any students turn down the food.
But, a few students told the MDJ during one lunch period that homemade lunches were starting to look better and better, even if it meant waking up early to prepare them.
“A lot of the things taste different,” said Hillgrove junior Mallory Griffith. “It tastes OK, but not as good as last year. I’ll probably bring my lunch more this year.”
Jones said she had already seen more students bringing their lunches on the first few days of school.
For students who still buy lunch, Jones said the deli line backs up faster than any other.
“Not much has changed in the deli line,” Toon said.
Students are free to construct their own sub sandwich in the deli line, but it has to be made on a wheat bun.
“I wish they hadn’t done this my senior year. They could have done it next year,” Moore said.
Students at the high school seemed to be facing an internal battle between their conscience and their desires. Every student the MDJ spoke to acknowledged the new menu is healthier and better for them. But none of them like it, saying it’s not what they eat outside of school.
Moore said the fries at school taste nothing like those from McDonald’s, which are his favorite.
“The fries don’t taste good at all, and the chicken tenders are different. The cookies taste like mud,” Moore said.
Jones said it doesn’t matter if the food is good for you if no one will eat it.
“No kids anywhere actually want this food,” Jones said. “The wheat cookies — those are really gross.”
In the past four years, schools have changed other parts of their lunches to make them healthier, such as limiting the milk selection to low-fat and skim milk and offering more choices of fruits and vegetables with every meal.
This year, the schools are focusing on keeping the total calorie count for each lunch between 550 and 650 calories for grades kindergarten through fifth, between 600 and 700 calories for sixth through eighth grade and between 750 and 850 calories for ninth through 12th grade.
Using whole wheat as a main ingredient helps maintain a low calorie count, said Cindy Culver, nutrition director for the Marietta School District.
“Our lunches have improved by providing whole-grain products, which increases the amount of dietary fiber in one’s diet,” Culver said.
Toon said students are offered choices for each side at lunch, but they must take at least one fruit and one vegetable. This helps keep the meal balanced, she said.
“Meals are planned so that students can select certain items,” Toon said. “They can choose from a protein, two fruits, two vegetables and a milk. They need to have at least three of those components.”
In an effort to reduce the amount of sodium each student receives in a meal, they aren’t allowed to have an unlimited amount of condiments, said Kelly Crossley, area supervisor of food and nutrition services for Cobb schools. Students only get one packet of ketchup, salad dressing or salt with each meal.
All the deep-fat fryers in school cafeterias were replaced with new ovens over the summer, Downs said, to replace fried chicken and french fries with baked chicken and baked fries.
“Everyone knows fried food is not good for you, so this is a healthier way to prepare food,” Downs said. “They create a similar product without the oil. (The ovens) actually blow heat across the product, giving it a crispy outside without frying it.”
State P.E. requirements
In connection with a federal push for healthy foods, physical education requirements are still in place.
Kindergarteners through fifth-graders have to spend at least 50 minutes in a health class each week and at least 100 minutes in a PE class each week.
Although sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders don’t have to take a PE class, it is offered to them at Marietta and Cobb schools.
Those in seventh- through 12th-grades have to take a PE and a health class at least once, and they are offered a chance to play on 13 different sports teams in the districts.