WASHINGTON - Some public school students across the country have been vocal about their disapproval of the new federal school lunch program, but the problem may go beyond taste with many Maryland students reporting that they leave the cafeteria still hungry, a Capital News Service survey found.
Nearly 90 percent of Maryland public school students responding to a CNS survey said they are sometimes or always left unfulfilled by their school lunch. This follows a national trend that has become publicized since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented nationwide this year.
The federal act required public schools to have certain nutritional guidelines in place, such as calorie restrictions, at the start of the 2012-2013 school year in order to receive additional lunch aid.
Capital News Service created a non-scientific survey using Google forms and distributed it to about 450 schools throughout the state by posting it on Facebook pages associated with the schools. The survey received 90 responses in about a month.
The majority of the students surveyed reported that the new lunch restrictions have left them hungry for more.
More than half of the survey responses came from middle-school children, including one Accokeek Academy eighth-grader who wrote, “I am still hungry after eating the lunch because it is not enough carbs and protein.”
Hunger is also a problem for a Tuscarora Middle School fourth-grader according to his mother.
“Our son buys two (lunches) just to have enough food,” she said. “At least when they got tater tots, they had enough food. Now the menu choices have been marginal, and rarely anything the kids eat.”
A typical lunch at Tuscarora Middle School and other schools across the state consist of foods like chicken nuggets, spaghetti with meat sauce or cheese pizza, paired with two fruit options and two vegetable options.
In Charles County there was a complete overhaul of their lunch menu two years as a part of the HealthierUS School Challenge and now students are used to the healthier food choices, Bill Kreuter, the county supervisor of food services, said.
“In our system, students are taking more fruits and vegetables and they aren’t complaining about being hungry,” he said.
One of the keys to their success is the students’ ability to choose their food.
“The students are taking what they want (and) aren’t being forced to have what they don’t want,” he added.
Higher quality food leads to less hunger, according to Maryland health coach Gina Rieg.
“Quality of food is much more significant, especially to be nourished, sustained and satisfied from a meal,” she said.
Feelings of dissatisfaction with school lunch have been voiced across the country with students in a Pittsburgh suburb going on strike in late August and starting the trending topic “BrownBagginIt” on Twitter, encouraging students to pack their lunches instead of eating the school lunch.
Students in Kansas protested lyrically by creating a music video, “We Are Hungry,” a parody of the song “We Are Young” by Fun, showing students who are unable to complete their daily tasks due to extreme hunger. The video has received more than 1 million views on YouTube.
While students have spoken out about their post-lunch hunger, it is not something that is exclusive to those still in school.
“Being hungry after a meal is very common for many age groups, not just these younger age groups,” Rieg said. “However, common does not equal normal. It’s common because the majority of us follow the mainstream health advice that we have been led to believe is true and healthy. Unfortunately, there are many health and food myths out there that form our eating habits and thus trickles into school lunches as well.”
Rieg said healthy fats are just as essential to a healthy diet as fruits and vegetables are.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, focuses on improving child nutrition by increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and setting calorie and sodium maximums. Schools have to meet the guidelines set in order to receive financial reimbursement for the meals distributed to students.
Previously the requirement for fruits and vegetables was one-half to three-quarters of a cup of fruit and vegetables combined per day, and now three-quarters of a cup of vegetables is required per day, in addition to one-half cup of fruit. There were also calorie minimums, allowing at least 633 to 825 calories depending on grade level, and now there are minimums and maximums, with the maximum ranging from 650 calories to 850 calories depending on the grade. The new program has also gone from simply encouraging whole grains to requiring that at least half the grains served are whole grains, with all grains being whole in July 2014. Sodium maximums have also been implemented, which will range from 1,230 milligrams for elementary school students to 1,420 milligrams for high school students by 2014, when there previously were none.
Meeting these guidelines is the main goal when planning the lunches in Prince George’s County, where nearly half of the CNS survey responses came from, according to Joan Shorter, director of food and nutrition services in the county.
Although taste and quantity of food is considered, “primarily we must ensure that the menu meets the requirements for a reimbursable meal,” she said in an email.
Crafting a menu to meet the guidelines can be a chore.
“It’s challenging to make sure the right combinations of food are offered in the right portion sizes per age group,” she said.
While portion size and calories are important, it should not be how proper nourishment is determined, according Rieg.
“I don’t believe it’s a matter of calorie counting at all,” Rieg said in an email. “When we try to determine what’s enough for a lunch, or any meal, focusing on the calorie count, we miss the most important aspect of food, quality. I truly believe that most of us, especially our children, are undernourished, not underfed.”
Rieg believes serving more nutrient-rich foods instead of “200 calories of plain broccoli or 200 calories of skinless chicken breast” can solve the hunger problem in schools.
“I am not saying that vegetables shouldn’t be a part of our meals,” she said, “but if school lunches contained more sustaining and nourishing foods and ingredients, such as avocados and food –vegetables, meat and fish,—being cooked liberally in coconut oil and other satisfying saturated fats, I believe post-lunch hunger would occur much less.”