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The Hunger Games

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Students at Prairie Elementary eat lunch recently at the school.

WORTHINGTON -- Implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has left some area students begging for more, despite the federal statute's best intentions to get the nation's children eating healthier during their school days.

"The seventh- and eighth-grade boys I coach in football would say there is not enough food in the school lunches now, that they are very hungry at the end of the day," said Tim Doeden, a Worthington Middle School (WMS) science teacher and football coach.

But District 518 food service director Michele Hawkinson is doing her best to put as much food on kids' trays as the new federal guidelines will allow.

"I am maxing out on the allowable amounts of grains and meats, especially at the high school," Hawkinson said. "I am trying really hard to be on the high end of everything."

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard --himself the father of two hungry, athletically involved teens --knows firsthand that bigger, more active students are not eating up the new food standards.

"This is not by our school district's choice, this is federally driven," Landgaard said. "It's not in our control, but if we want to continue receiving the federal dollars, we have to abide by these regulations.

"I don't necessarily agree with the guidelines, because kids playing football or other sports need more calories than kids who just go home after school and aren't as active. We have the potential of losing out on federal money that supplements the school lunch program, which helps keep our prices low, so we have no choice but to comply with the standards."

Hawkinson said the lunches students are now receiving contain about 100 calories less than those served in previous years.

"We can only have so many calories," she said, listing the following maximum calorie guidelines for lunches: K-5, 550-650 calories; 6-8, 600 to 700 calories; and 9-12, 750 to 850 calories.

"The biggest change the kids are seeing right now is the grains," Hawkinson said. "We formerly allowed them as much bread and peanut butter as they wanted, but now K-5 is limited to eight to nine grains per week while ninth through 12th grade is limited to 10-12 grains weekly."

Additionally, Prairie Elementary is a peanut-free school, so peanut butter was never an option there.

And what constitutes a serving of grain? One bun equals two grains, plus Hawkinson must take into account the amount of breading on pork patties, chicken nuggets and other entrees.

"And 50 percent of what we serve must be whole-grain this year, and by 2014-15, it has to be 100 percent whole grain," Hawkinson added.

Previously, students were required to have at least three meal components on their trays. That could have been achieved with a hot dog in a bun and a carton of milk, Hawkinson said.

"Now kids must have either a fruit or a vegetable on their trays, and they can take both if they desire, which is great," Hawkinson explained. "The goal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is to get the kids to eat healthier, and they're asking us to help with that by providing more fruits and vegetables --and more fresh fruits and vegetables, in particular."

While the protein and grain portions are more restricted than before, Hawkinson said students are welcome to return for as many fruits and vegetables as they wish.

"They can have unlimited fruits and vegetables," Hawkinson said. "The cooks ask them to put on their trays only what they think they can eat the first time through, but they can come back and get more when they're ready for it."

Hawkinson is required to provide certain categories of vegetables, in prescribed quantities, weekly --dark greens, red-oranges, legumes (beans and peas), starchy and "others."

"Fruits and vegetables can be a little more expensive, but then I use a commodity food to help even out the cost," Hawkinson said. "Kids do like the fresh fruits and veggies, and we have the 'Farm to School' program that offers fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, and the kids gobble that up.

"At the middle school, we actually ran out of fresh vegetables on Thursday of this week so we had to purchase more for Friday."

Hawkinson surveyed the cooks at WMS, Prairie Elementary and Worthington High School with regard to food waste, and anecdotal reports indicate there is less garbage than in past years.

"But the head cook at WHS said they used to make four pans of cooked vegetables and run out each day, whereas now they are making three pans and have some left over," Hawkinson said. "That's because they can't put cheese on the veggies anymore."

Each school offers two main entrees, plus a third choice -- either a chef salad or yogurt. At both WMS and WHS, cash-only a la carte lines are available for additional purchases, or as alternatives to the main-line offerings.

"The a la carte lines have a variety of things, and we've gotten a grant to get a salad bar for the high school a la carte area, so we'll be able to have a salad bar and sandwich bar on alternate days of the week," Hawkinson said. "We try to charge just enough to cover our expenses and try to keep the kids at the high school to eat so they don't leave and get fast food."

For parents of older, bigger or more active children who are worried about their kids getting enough to eat, Hawkinson mentioned that, at least at the WHS a la carte line, a slice of bread costs five cents, as does a serving of peanut butter, so for 15 cents a student could make a peanut butter sandwich as a lunch supplement.

"We have seen an increase in diabetics among our student population, so hopefully the new guidelines will help with that," Hawkinson said. "Maybe it is time for more fruits and vegetables in the kids' diets.

"We knew these changes were coming, so we've had a fresh vegetable bar in the past so our kids were already exposed to that," she continued. "Now there are black beans, kidney beans, things that we're not really used to, but the more you have it, the more you get used to it."

Hawkinson admits the new guidelines have created some frustrations for her, particularly with paperwork and menu balancing, and she understands why some parents and students are unhappy with the changes.

For instance, she must submit a weekly menu to a state oversight board to ensure the District 518 lunches meet the requirements in order for the district to receive six cents of reimbursement for each meal served during the year -- an effort to compensate schools for the cost of increased fruit and vegetable requirements.

Another concern is, with roughly 65 percent of District 518 students receiving free or reduced lunches, "You know that for some of our students, this is the only meal they can rely on getting daily, and you want to be able to give them enough to stay full," Hawkinson said, "but the school lunch really can't feed them for the whole day--it's really just to get them through the school hours until they get home for supper."

District 518's lunch prices this year are $1.60 for K-4 meals and $1.75 for 5-12 meals.

"You take little steps to teach kids how to eat right, and over time, they'll get used to it," Hawkinson said, noting an outcry from parents and students several years ago over eliminating white bread from lunches has morphed into an upset that the whole grain bread is being restricted.

"Change is always hard," Hawkinson acknowledged, "but this is overall a good program. We're used to eating big, lots and super-sized, and this is a healthier, appropriate portion for most of the kids."

Next week: Students, parents and teachers express their opinions about the federally required changes to the school lunch program.

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