Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Healthy lunches in Hernando not enough, students say

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Cody Dunlap sat before the remains of his lunch of beef nachos and rice Friday in the Central High School cafeteria, chatting with friends.

His entree had disappeared in a flash.

"Nacho day is like the best day in the world in this school," the 17-year-old senior said.

But next to the space on the tray formerly occupied by the dollop of bright yellow cheese, ground beef and chips, sat a small pile of rice, neglected and mostly untouched.

"It doesn't taste like rice," Dunlap said.

There have been big changes to school lunches across the country this year with newly imposed federal school meal guidelines aimed at curbing obesity. The meals add more fruits and vegetables, while shrinking other portion sizes to limit grains, proteins and calories.

Students across the country have pushed back against the changes, complaining the meals are leaving them hungry. Some have decided to walk away from school lunches, bringing their own or going elsewhere to get their meals.

That's worrisome for school food departments, which depend on the money they receive from serving lunches. The full price is $1.80 at elementary schools and $2.10 at middle and high schools.

Initially it looked as if Hernando County schools, which unveiled the new menu on Sept. 17, might survive the dramatic changes in good shape.

In October, the district sold roughly 4,000 more lunches than the previous year.

But interest in school lunches appears to have fallen off considerably this November.

The district sold about 22,000 fewer lunches compared to November 2011, a drop from 272,158 to 250,484.

"I don't think we're in panic mode," said Lori Drenth, the district's director of food and nutrition services. "[The] numbers give me pause.

"I'm hoping we don't see any decline in December, for sure."

Other districts have also seen a dropoff tied to the new nutritional requirements.

Earlier this year in Pasco, the number of high school students buying school lunches dropped 16 percent compared to the same time last year. Meanwhile, the district had to spend more on providing fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthier offerings. Cost was outpacing revenue.

In Hernando, Drenth said, it costs more to provide the new meals than the additional money the district receives to provide the new meals. She said the overall budget, however, was doing pretty well because of high participation rates among free and reduced lunch students.

The district, as is typical, is reevaluating its menu for the second half of the year and will be making changes based on the feedback they've received from students.

"Menus are just kind of a work in progress," Drenth said.

They'll be making numerous tweaks, including eliminating the mashed cauliflower (never popular), a Caribbean red bean dish and switching in bread sticks for some other types of bread. They'll also move to a cycle that repeats the most popular entrees more often, sacrificing a little variety.

But they can only change so much and still be in compliance with what the strict new standards.

"It's a really, big complicated puzzle," Drenth said.

Students have mixed reactions.

Dunlap, the Central senior, could list several favorite lunch items: nachos, buffalo chicken bites, baked chicken, rib-a-que and the relatively new Swiss bacon burger.

"It's so good," he exclaimed.

But just a few tables away Friday morning, 16-year-old Joseph Adair didn't have such a high opinion.

"It's like jail — like a juvenile detention," bemoaned the junior.

Anton Zeytulaev, 17, agreed. The junior lamented the shrinking serving sizes, and said he no longer is willing to buy school lunches.

"I bring my lunch every day … we pay the same price for less food, so I didn't want to do that. Why would I do that?" he said.

Keith White II, a 14-year-old freshman, had mixed feelings about the meals, as he sat before his fried chicken, bread stick, peaches and orange juice.

"It's not enough if you're going to stay after school, so you got to bring extra," he said. "But I guess it's enough to get through the day.

He said he often brings money when he knows he'll need to stay extra for ROTC or some other activity.

The federal government adopted the new rules back in 2010 because of concerns that children were not eating well. They were the first major changes to school lunch nutrition rules in decades. Officials say that a well-balanced 850-calorie meal for a high-school student is enough, and in line with recommendations.

The new measures were also a major push by first lady Michelle Obama.

Sumneer Karnow, a 17-year-old junior, had some choice words for her.

"When we get salads, they're all tomatoes. I have no lettuce," she said. "Hopefully they write this in the paper so Michelle knows I don't like her."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him at @HernandoTimes.

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