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Looking at lunches

Editor's note: Last week: District 518 food service director Michele Hawkinson outlined what the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act dictates for school lunch programs, and the changes that has meant in menu planning and food service.

WORTHINGTON -- Lower overall calorie counts, restrictions in the portions of grains and proteins served on a weekly basis and a greater emphasis on fruits and vegetables are among the changes schools across the nation have been implementing this fall, as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 went into effect.

While the federal statute's intentions are to promote better nutrition and combat a marked increase in the rate of U.S. childhood obesity, it's taking awhile for at least some area students and parents to adjust to the school menu changes.

"I haven't heard too many complaints about the serving sizes, and I go in the cafeteria daily," said Jeff Luke, Worthington Middle School (WMS) principal. "But it's easy to see that four chicken fingers might not be enough to fill up some 240-pound eighth graders."

Tim Doeden, a seventh-grade WMS science teacher who also coaches seventh- and eighth-grade football and is the parent of three boys, sees some of those bigger, more active students at the end of the school day, and he perceives they are not getting enough to eat at lunchtime.

"They feel it's not enough to carry them through practice time, and if the goal is to get kids eating healthier, it isn't always working because some kids still get cookies and junk from a la carte," Doeden said. "The plan ignores where the greater number of empty calories are coming from -- the cookies, ice cream and pizza they can still get at the a la carte line.

"And I have three fast-growing boys in school -- my high school junior grew three inches last year, and my ninth grader went up two shoe sizes since June -- and they are very hungry. I do appreciate they are adding more fruits and veggies, but many kids go home at the end of the day and load up on junk food, which defeats the purpose."

One eighth-grader who echoes Doeden's sentiments is Eli Gaul, a football player.

"I think the lunches are really, really small," Gaul said. "I get hungry sooner, and after football, I'm starving when I get home. Sometimes I go back [for fruits or vegetables] if I'm hungry enough, but all they have is apples and oranges, and some weird stuff -- mixtures of corn, peas and carrots, or broccoli.

"I'd eat a banana if they had it, though. And a la carte has changed -- no more cheesy fries or nachos, but they added apple slices with caramel."

Gaul's classmate, eighth-grade volleyball player Maddi Woll, largely concurs.

OKok, but they were better last year," she said. "The portions aren't very big, but there is more fresh fruit -- but I can't eat the apples because of my braces."

Another local parent and teacher whose kids are finding the lunches somewhat inadequate is Laurie Landwehr. While her 7- to 8-year-old second-grade students seem content with their lunches this year, her eighth-grade, volleyball-playing daughter and 12th grade, varsity cross country runner son are less than satisfied.

"It's not unusual for Nathan to eat five bowls of cereal before eating supper," Landwehr said.

WHS ninth-graders Paige Stewart and Erika Schutte, who just wrapped up their fall tennis season, had some comments about the lunch changes.

"It's not convenient that bread isn't on the line, and there isn't as much a selection of fruit as there used to be," Stewart said. "On tennis days, I was very hungry, and if the parent of another player hadn't given us a snack every day right before practice, I don't think I could have made it easily through a practice."

Added Schutte, "I was so hungry one day this week that I ate dinner at 4:45 p.m."

Elaine Deutchman, food service director for District 177 schools in Windom, stresses that school lunches are intended to get kids through the school day.

"I think the overall program is good, but they based the average calorie count on average-sized kids with a moderate activity level -- 30 to 60 minutes of exercise daily -- and for more active students or athletes, who might have two to three hours of exercise, they will need more calories in a day, ultimately," expressed Deutchman, who says she is using "lots of signage" to get kids to take appropriate servings of fruits and vegetables and is pushing whole grains in Windom.

"But after school, it's still the responsibility of parents and students to get the extra calories they need," she noted. "I have a ninth grader, too, and we take the students' comments seriously and are making small changes as we go based on students' suggestions."

Deutchman observes less food waste this year than in past years, and judging from a review of the WHS cafeteria following one of Friday's lunch periods, most students' trays appeared to have been licked clean.

"I feel like I could eat again right now," said WHS freshman McKenzie Williams just after dropping off her tray. "Three chicken strips? I'm starving after school!"

Williams' classmate Quinn Bents suggested, "Maybe if they served healthier food we could get bigger, more satisfying portions."

While 6-foot sophomore football player Peter Abraham claimed to be sated after consuming one regular lunch, WHS senior Kate Lesnar confessed to having eaten two lunches yesterday -- but that was nothing compared to the five meals her fellow senior, Nathan Ebbers, downed.

"I went through the line five times today," said Ebbers, who puts his stats at about 5-11 and 170 pounds. "I drank about two and a half cartons of milk and ate four cookies."

Admittedly a "big eater," Ebbers said in past years he "only" ate two or three lunches a day, but this fall has more commonly purchased four or five.

WHS sophomore athletes Trevor Wietzema and Oliver Wolyniec supplement their lunches with the $1 a la carte credit they typically receive daily for pushing out the milk cart for the WHS cooks. Most often, they translate that credit into four cookies, which, along with the three cups of applesauce Wietzema ate Friday, upped their total calorie intake.

"I usually eat about four cookies every day, too, and I get a second lunch a lot of the time," said WHS junior Will Dudley, another football player.

But not every student is unhappy with the quantity or quality of the new school lunches.

WHS senior Seth Meier, for one, said, "I think the lunches are good. The potatoes and gravy with chicken or turkey is probably my favorite lunch, and I've gone back for extra broccoli."

Admittedly, Meier is not involved in a fall sport, and his mother, Apryl, thinks the story might be a little different once hockey and golf season roll around.

"He's not a fussy eater, but he does eat a lot of food at home," she shared. "He usually packs a lunch -- peanut butter sandwiches, an apple, water -- when he has sports practices or games, and he's excited about the new salad bar coming to the high school."

Similarly, WMS eighth- grade volleyball player Emily Shaffer commented, "I like the lunches because the food is really good, and they make you eat vegetables, which is healthier. I don't like the smaller portions, though."

Luke, her principal, is similarly glad for the nutritious improvements, as he eats the hot lunches every day, like most of his students.

"I've been eating hot lunch all my life," Luke said. "My mom didn't make me cold lunch when I was a kid, I was on the three-meal plan in college, the works." Luke, a healthy, normal-weight adult man, eats just what the cooks serve up on an average lunch tray.

"Everything in moderation," Luke laughed.

Next week: Dietitians and doctors weigh in on the school lunch guidelines of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.