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PAXTON — At first, Coltin Bradshaw did not think much of it when the lunch lady placed five chicken nuggets on his plate, instead of the usual six, and he was allowed only one scoop of gravy on his mashed potatoes.
Then, one week later, whole-grain breadsticks accompanied his plate of spaghetti, and a few days later he noticed he got no french fries with his hamburger, or any butter with his dinner roll.
At that point, Bradshaw — and most other students — could not help but notice the changes in the school lunch at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School.
“Most of the kids are not happy about it,” said Bradshaw, a 14-year-old freshman who has taken it upon himself to speak out against the changes mandated by the federal government for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.
The changes — implemented in July under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — mean kids are being served more fresh fruit and vegetables this fall — and tighter controls on calories and fat. Some 4,481 schools in Illinois participate in the National School Lunch Program and are in the process of implementing the changes, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
PBL High School Principal Trent Eshleman said students are certainly aware of the changes and are “taking some very responsible measures to show their dissatisfaction.”
Bradshaw is among them. He wrote a letter to the editor for this week’s Paxton Record speaking out against the federal mandate, and he said he plans to revise the letter before sending it to lawmakers and first lady Michelle Obama.
“I realized that there were a lot of kids who weren’t very happy about it, and they were complaining about it a lot, so I knew it was a big problem and everyone has something to say about it, so I just wanted to kind of speak my mind for everyone,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw said most students at PBL are not against the idea of a healthier meal — they are just disappointed in the options they have for their meal, and some do not like the smaller portions.
PBL Superintendent Cliff McClure said the new requirements mean meals must have more whole grain and daily helpings of vegetables and fruits. There are also new limits placed on saturated fat and fewer items that contain sugar and salt, McClure said. The only milk that can be served is low-fat or non-fat milk, he added.
“Also, for the first time within these mandates are age-aligned calorie maximums,” McClure said, meaning that the age of the student determines the number of calories in the student’s meal. “The younger the student, the fewer the calories.”
For high school students, the maximum number of calories per meal is now between 850 and 950, which is “definitely lower than it used to be,” McClure said.
And that means less food on the tray, McClure noted.
Sherry Elliott, a cook at PBL High School/PBL Junior High School, said students are upset because the portions are smaller, yet kids are still throwing food away. She noted all kids going through the lunch line must take fruits and vegetables, even if they do not intend to eat them.
“They say that all they’re going to do is throw it away,” Elliott said. “We’re frustrated (as cooks). We see a lot of waste. But then again, it’s nothing we can control.”
Bradshaw said he has seen more food wasted than before.
“I notice it a lot,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve even noticed myself doing it. ... I’ll kind of pick at it, and I might take a couple of bites and then throw it away. ... I kind of wish that I didn’t do that so much.
Bradshaw said the lunches of the past were “definitely better,” adding that “I think everybody else liked the old lunches, too.”
“On a scale from 1 to 10, I would say everyone would say it’s a 9, as in it’s a really big problem,” Bradshaw said. “All of us look forward to lunch, and if we can’t even have an enjoyable lunch experience, why should we even go to lunch?”
Students are not the only ones at PBL who are frustrated by the changes. Cooks also have had to spend more time putting together meals that do not exceed the required nutritional limitations.
“It’s more work for us,” Elliott said. “It’s a longer process to put the menu together.”
Said McClure: “There’s a lot of things we’re still learning as far as how to adjust our menus so we can provide some variation of meals and things of that nature.”
McClure said one issue that may not yet be realized by the new requirements is that standardizing caloric intake based on a student’s age may not be the most appropriate way to address childhood obesity.
“With each person’s nutrition, their needs vary,” McClure noted. “We’ve tried to standardize this, but the problem is we’re all different. We all have different (nutritional) needs.”
Student-athletes, for example, may require more calories than others, McClure said.
“I’m in basketball, and I know some of the kids (have to wait to eat until after practice or a game and) don’t get dinner until probably 8 or 9 at night, and so if they don’t eat that much at lunch, they might be hungry and not play as well,” Bradshaw said.
Eshleman also noted that some of PBL’s lower-income students who depend on their school lunch as their big meal of the day may not be getting enough food.
“For some, this might be the only good meal, or two good meals a day — between breakfast and lunch — that they get,” Eshleman said.
If that is the case, McClure and Eshleman suggest that students bring a snack from home to supplement their lunch or a snack that can be eaten before practice or a game.
Parents are also advised to make sure their kids eat breakfast every day, either at home or at school. PBL Eastlawn School and Clara Peterson Elementary School offer breakfast every day — and those students who qualify for free or reduced lunch also qualify for free or reduced breakfast, McClure said.
PBL administrators planned to inform parents about the changes this week.
“I have already got a parent letter ready to go,” McClure said Friday. “I just want to make sure I have someone I’m running it through on the state board (of education) to make sure it’s factual. I’m waiting for a return answer. I’m hoping to send it out Monday or Tuesday afternoon.”
Of course, the students are already aware of what has happened.
“At this point, our students’ feathers are ruffled,” Eshleman said. “There have been a handful that say, ‘Bring your own lunches.’ And there are a handful that say the drop in calories is hard on our student-athletes and those who have to go to football or basketball practice afterwards.
“The only thing I’ve tried to tell the kids is, ‘Don’t kill the messenger on this. If you have feelings on this, there are ways to go about it.’”
Since the mandate comes directly from the federal government, Eshleman said staff is encouraging students to write letters to lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, has not received any calls from students yet about the new lunch changes, but his press secretary, Phil Bloomer, said Friday that Johnson will be “happy to respond to their concerns if they address it to the congressman.”
Meanwhile, high school students are also taking the issue to their own student newspaper, The Panthergraph. Student reporter Zac Weisenbarn has written the story, according to journalism teacher Amanda Dunlavey.
Eshleman said he personally feels that nutrition guidelines at schools are not the reason for obesity. He said the more likely causes are “video games and a lack of supervision of students because of parents having to work and not being able to be home.”
Tim Murphy, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the National School Lunch Program is a voluntary program available to all public and private schools that agree to operate a non-profit program offering lunches meeting federal requirements to all children in attendance. The program also includes the School Breakfast Program, Special Milk Program, Seamless Summer Option and After-school Care Program.
Participating school districts receive cash subsidies and donated foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal they serve.
“For each meal that’s served, the schools are reimbursed for a portion per student on that,” Murphy said. “So there’s definitely an advantage for schools to participate in that.”
In the 2010-11 school year, the schools in Illinois participating in the program had a combined enrollment of 2.33 million students.
“It’s a fairly popular program across the state,” Murphy said. “As the economic times have changed, definitely it has become fairly popular.”
TIME FOR CHANGE
Here are the changes to the National School Lunch Program that started in July and are being implemented now:
— Minimum and maximum calories for each grade level.
— A choice between low-fat unflavored milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk.
— Half of grains served must be “whole-grain rich,” and all grains must be so by the 2013-14 school year.
— Saturated fat is limited; trans fat is forbidden.
— Students must be offered fruit every day.
— Schools must offer vegetables from different groups each week, including dark greens, reds or oranges, beans or peas and starchy vegetables.