Two years ago, the federal government put strict new guidelines in place for school lunches to get kids eating healthier. Since then, about one million students have left the program nationwide. Many students are simply brown-bagging it— dissatisfied with what their cafeteria serves under the new standards. Others attend a small but growing number of schools who are ditching the federal program—and its dollars—altogether. There are 7 such schools in Wyoming. Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank paid one of them a visit to see how it’s working out.
“Doubles, please,” says eighth-grader Kevin Howarth, pointing to a pile of popcorn chicken as he moves through the lunch line at the Big Horn Junior High and High School cafeteria.
“Could I have some fries also?”
Howarth, like most of the students here, is pretty content with his school lunch options.
“See, it gives me a nice selection,” Howarth says. “I don’t have to eat that, I don’t have to eat this. I can have whatever I want.”
This is a big change from last year, when federal guidelines under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act had students eating a lot more grains and vegetables—and fewer calories. Back then, student satisfaction was at an all-time low. Howarth’s school is among a small but growing number of schools around the country who are ditching the federal program—and its dollars—altogether. There are 7 such schools in Wyoming.
Well, last year the portions just weren’t big enough,” says Big Horn student Ethyn Etchechoury. “I would always bring cold lunch to school. I’ve seen drastic changes. I’ve never brought a bag lunch this year.”
Sixth grader Cassie Guelde says the lunchroom dynamic has changed.
“Now, like 3 or 4 kids pack their lunch in the 6th, but last year it was like half or three quarters of the fifth grade packed their lunch,” says Guelde.
Haydon Mullinax is also a fan of the new program.
“I actually enjoy it,” Mullinax says. “I wouldn’t enjoy lunch, and now every time I get into the lunchroom, I’m actually happy to get lunch.”
Sheridan County One left the federal school lunch program in its junior high and high schools this year, and participation went up 20 percent. The district’s business manager, Jeremy Smith, says the move was necessary, because there were just too many complaints.
"Universally, it was, ‘We are starving. We are hungry. This isn’t enough food for us.’ But we couldn’t blame them, because I looked at that school lunch and said, ‘I wouldn’t eat it either.’"
Sheridan One, like most schools nationwide that have actually left the federal program, has a fairly wealthy student body. Less than 20 percent of sixth-through twelfth graders here qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most schools simply can’t afford to abandon the federal subsidies. In Smith’s district, it meant walking away from about $50,000.
“We knew we had to make it up.” Smith says. “We said, ‘How are we going to do it?’ Two ways, one you can increase prices or two you can increase participation.”
They did both—and now offer more options at higher prices—and have added some locally sourced produce and beef to get parents and students excited about the new program. Smith says the district is making more money than it was under the program last year—even without the federal money. And now, they’re free to serve whatever they want—like today’s pastrami and beef burgers on pretzel buns—and popcorn chicken.
“We couldn’t serve this because they don’t make whole grain popcorn chicken,” says Sheridan One’s food service director Dennis Decker as he pulls heaping trays of Tyson chicken pieces from a convection oven. He says the federal lunch standards are well intentioned, but he’s glad to be able to do his own thing.
“A one-size-fits-all program doesn’t work everywhere,” says Decker. “And I also think that food is a little too personal to make a law. You can tell someone they can’t speed, but I don’t you can tell everybody what they have to eat every day.”
Decker says the new program here does have healthy options—like the locally-grown cherry red tomatoes in the salad bar. They looked great, but few ended up on students’ lunch trays. Decker isn’t sure how many calories are in today’s meals, because he doesn’t need to be. The federal standards call for 750-850-calorie lunches for high-schoolers, and about 600 calories for elementary school students.
“A lot of our students are athletes or they go home and work on a ranch, so the 650, 700 calories really wasn’t enough for them.” Decker says.
Tamra Jackson is the Nutrition Supervisor for the Wyoming Department of Education
“There are people who have complained about the amount, but when you look at the whole lunch, 850 calories, that’s a good amount of calories, Jackon says.
Jackson says the calorie limits were set by some of the country’s best pediatricians and nutritionists—and that they are based on averages for the week, not hard-and-fast boundaries for each meal. Jackson says there will always be grumbles over school lunch, but the new standards are needed to curb the country’s childhood obesity epidemic.
“We’re trying to lay a foundation for kids to make healthy choices when they get older,” says Jackson. “It amazes me that people are mad that we’re serving them healthy food.”
School lunch participation is trending down among students in Wyoming—and around the country. That may affect the future of the new, federal lunch standards. They’ll need to be reauthorized by Congress next year.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.