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COLUMN

New school menu guidelines draw mixed reviews

Will FWCS' 'healthier trash cans' lead to healthier students?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012 - 8:28 am

Students in Wisconsin staged a boycott. In Kansas, they filmed a parody protest and posted it on the Internet.

A response to new dress codes, funding cuts or tougher tests? No, this is serious: New federal guidelines have dramatically changed the way schools serve food – a change that may or may not produce healthier Americans but has, in the words of Fort Wayne Community Schools' head lunch lady, already created “healthier trash cans.”

“We haven't had as much backlash (as in some places). We started making some of these changes three or four years ago and have done pretty well at creating menus students enjoy,” said Director of Nutrition Services Candice Hagar, whose responsibility for feeding most of the district's 36,660 students has been complicated by three-month-old rules that mandate larger and more varied portions of fruits and vegetables at the expense of more-popular items and, at times, student satisfaction.

Originating in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the guidelines that took effect July 1 have an un deniably noble goal: to improve the health of the nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and the 11 million who eat breakfast – many of whom suffer from obesity or other problems influenced for better or worse by what they eat.

The new guidelines vary by age group but generally require more servings of fruits and vegetables, reduced servings of grains (and by 2014 only whole grains!), and reduced levels of fat. Of course, as any parent knows, it's one thing to serve Brussels sprouts or beets -- and quite another to make sure they're actually consumed, much less enjoyed.

And so, as any parent also knows, school officials have had to become creative in ways that, if applied to academics, could not help but improve test scores.

Haley Elementary School, for example, will host a “bean counter” contest later this month to entice students to eat their baked beans and black bean brownies.

Such games won't work in the upper grades, of course, so officials are resorting to actual education about nutritional value and sensory rewards of blood oranges and other foods previously left to the epicureans.

Officials are resorting to a bit of common-sense scavenging, too. The rules allow some forms of unused or discarded foods to be retrieved and given to athletes after school. That's important, because as Mukwonago (Wis.) High School football player Nick Blohm told the Milwaukee Journal, his coach wants him to consume more than 3,000 calories a day – but the new guidelines cap his lunch at just 850 calories.

Students are still free to bring food from home, of course – for now, at least. But with 72 percent of FWCS students qualifying for free or reduced-cost meals because of family income, that's not always an option. And because the federal government reimburses schools for meals served to low-income students, FWCS could not afford to ignore the new guidelines even if it wanted to.

Those guidelines have increased the cost of a meal by about 30 cents, only six cents of which has been provided by the federal bureaucrats who imposed the rules in the first place. Non-subsidized meals will also cost more in some districts, whether the students eat everything or not.

With one in three American children overweight or obese – nearly triple the rate in 1963 – no one can deny the alarming trend. Nor, in a sense, do the guidelines represent just another example of the ever-growing “nanny state.” People who accept federal dollars are in no position to object to the strings inevitably attached to them.

And hopefully Hagar is right to hope that, the children being exposed to and throwing away unfamiliar but healthier food today will grow into healthier, less finicky adults. And, while visiting the nutrition services center that prepares meals for the district's 30 elementary schools, I was encouraged to see them dishing up not only carrots but pizza and chocolate cake – even if the cake did contain beets.

But as a trained dietician, Hagar knows health is the sum of many parts – of which school food is only one. It's doubtful, for example, that children's diets are three times as unhealthy as in 1963, and far more likely that the lack of physical activity and other factors are also responsible. Thanks to video games, she noted, some students' thumbs are the most-exercised parts of their bodies.

“It will be hard to assess whether the guideline reduce obesity because there are so many variables,” she acknowledged.

But that won't stop Washington from trying. You can bet the federal food police aren't too far behind.

Makes me glad I went to school when kids could buy all the chocolate milk and cookies they wanted, and nobody hid beets in the cake.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.