Student attitudes changing on healthy school lunches, studies say
Discarded lunches drop in one Utah district, but others still see lots of waste
"We like to think they’re making better choices," she said. "They’re choosing more of the fruits and vegetables, especially the fresh ones. Those always go first and very quickly."
But other districts report lingering issues with the new guidelines. Davis School District Food Services director Pam Tsakalos said the district is spending an additional $300,000 each year on produce to comply with the guidelines, but relatively little is seeing the inside of a student's mouth.
"The waste is horrendous," she said.
Tsakalos said students don't like being told they have to select a fruit or vegetable in order to receive their lunch.
She said that rule combined with increased prices and negative media reports surrounding the new guidelines have created a "perfect storm" that has seen the number of daily lunches served by the Davis School District drop by more than 3,500.
The drop in the participation rate has plateaued, Tsakalos said, but will likely take years to return to levels prior to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
"Once you lose that, it’s almost impossible to gain that back," she said.
In Alpine School District, Nutrition Services director Linda Ward said school officials are hearing fewer complaints about food but that the number of lunches served remains down roughly 12 percent since 2012.
As in other districts, Ward said the increased emphasis on produce has been coldly received by students. But she added that the switch to whole grain wheat has been a particular sticking point.
"Pizza made with a whole grain crust just isn’t pizza," she said.
Tsakalos said the Davis District is learning from and continuing to adapt to the new standards, switching out less popular food items for more child-friendly alternatives.
She also said students discarding uneaten food on their way to the playground or their next class is not a new phenomenon. But the requirement that schools provide healthier items like whole grains and fresh produce has resulted in comparatively expensive garbage.
"Waste has always been an issue," she said, "it's just now you're having to spend money for things to offer that don't get consumed."
The new guidelines represent a major shift for the federal school lunch program, which has remained relatively unchanged for more than a decade.
Ward said the conventional wisdom is that new lunch guidelines require five years of adaptation before being accepted as a new normal. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is now entering its third academic year and educators, she said, are hopeful that the worst is behind them.
"We're in the transition period," she said.
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