Students complain portions too small under new school lunch menus

Zephyrhills High junior Justin Shaffer, who plays on the defensive and offensive lines for the school’s football team, said he’s been buying at least two school lunches this year after a reduction in portion sizes in federal meal guidelines.
Zephyrhills High junior Justin Shaffer, who plays on the defensive and offensive lines for the school’s football team, said he’s been buying at least two school lunches this year after a reduction in portion sizes in federal meal guidelines.
Published Oct. 5, 2012


It's 10:45 a.m. and Shermar Branch is hungry.

The problem is, he just finished lunch in the Zephyrhills High School cafeteria — a serving of nachos, milk, juice, a cup of pear sauce and some vegetables.

"I'm a big guy," said Branch, 16, a junior who plays linebacker on the Bulldogs football team. "I've got to have a lot more food than this."

Because of new federal school meal guidelines aimed at curbing obesity, though, that's all he can get unless he pays for another plate. That's causing grumbling among parents and students, and their tummies.

School districts around the country are fielding complaints about the new nutrition rules that took effect this fall, adding more fruits and vegetables but shrinking other portion sizes to limit grains, proteins and calories. Parents are ponying up the same money as last year for school meals, but kids say the smaller servings aren't filling them up.

"This ain't no meal," said Zephyrhills High sophomore Jwon Pickett, pointing to a small turkey wrap. "It's an appetizer."

Some have taken their gripes to school officials and the Web. Students from a Kansas high school created a music video We Are Hungry, using the tune from Fun.'s We Are Young, showing famished students collapsing in class while a few desperate teens raid the cafeteria refrigerator.

The new salad bar at Chamberlain High School in Tampa is popular, but eight of the 12 students interviewed there Thursday morning said they were not satisfied with the lunch portions.

"It's healthy, but they never give you enough," said Anthony Gilbert, 15. By later in the day, he said, "you're sitting there thinking, 'Wow, I need some food. I'm hungry.' "

Roemello Hampton, 18, a student at St. Petersburg High, typically has one taco, one piece of fruit and one serving of juice and water for lunch. The portions are so small, he said, he often buys snacks from the vending machines, an added cost that other students on free or reduced-price meals can't afford.

Such reactions are hurting the bottom line for school nutrition programs, which must balance their budgets as standalone entities.

In Pasco, for instance, the number of high school students buying school lunches is down 16 percent from the same time a year ago, while the cost of providing more fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthier offerings is outpacing revenue by $1.3 million, food and nutrition services supervisor Julie Hedine told the Pasco School Board.

"It's not what the students perceive as a good value," Hedine said.

There has been less backlash at Pinellas County schools, which started phasing in the changes last year, food and nutrition supervisor Catherine Gerard said. She said students can take one of each of the fruits and vegetables offered on a given day, meaning a student could walk away with as many as three pieces of fruit.

"They can take additional food, it just happens to be healthy," she said.

The federal government adopted the new rules back in 2010 over concerns of too many children not eating well and facing increasing health risks. First lady Michelle Obama made the revisions a priority for her national advocacy efforts.

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The "healthy, delicious new choices" will "give you energy and make you stronger," she said in a special video recorded this fall. "It's about ensuring that all of you have everything you need to learn and grow and succeed in school and in life."

These are the first major changes to school lunch nutrition rules in decades, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture defended them as long overdue. Officials have pointed out that a well-balanced 850-calorie meal for a high school student is sufficient, and in line with recommendations by pediatricians and nutritionists.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has told network news reporters that if kids are hungry before sports practices or club meetings, their parents should pack them snacks.

Some members of Congress have taken the opportunity to press for a return to less restrictive rules.

"The USDA's new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste and unaccomplished goals. Thanks to the Nutrition Nannies at the USDA, America's children are going hungry at school," U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said in a recent news release introducing the "No Hungry Kids Act" he is co-sponsoring.

At Zephyrhills High, football coach Reggie Roberts has regularly bought cases of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk cartons from the cafeteria to give to his players before practice.

"We have to eat snacks before practice because most of the team is hungry," said sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Pickett. "It's a problem not having enough."

Stephanie Spicknall, nutrition coordinator for Pasco schools, said the district is tweaking menus to offer alternatives that comply with new rules. If kids don't want raw zucchini and ranch dressing, for instance, the school might be able to replace it with something else.

Sue Smith, lunchroom manager at Zephyrhills High, said it has been tough trying to follow the new rules and keep students happy. She understands the push for healthier options but says Michelle Obama has it easier than the folks who run school cafeterias.

"She has two little girls," she said. "I have 500 big boys."

Times staff writers Cara Fitzpatrick, Laura C. Morel and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at