Reactions mixed over healthier school meals

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WASHINGTON -- Two years in, schools are having mixed success putting new healthier school lunch rules in place.

Some report that students are excited about a variety of healthier options and have barely noticed the changes. Others say some kids are throwing away fruits and vegetables and balking at whole grains.

The requirements are part of a government effort to make school lunches and breakfasts healthier. Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the new standards have been phased in over the past two school years, with more changes coming in 2014.

Some schools are asking Congress and the Agriculture Department to roll back some of the requirements. Their main concerns: finding enough whole grain-rich foods that kids like, lowering sodium levels and keeping fruits and vegetables from ending up in the trash.

Not all schools are required to follow the requirements, but most do. If they don't, they won't receive government subsidies that partially reimburse schools for free and low-cost lunches for low-income kids.

In Virginia's Alexandria City Public Schools, school nutrition director Becky Domokos-Bays says students have adapted to whole grain rolls and pizza crusts, but have rejected whole grain pastas so far. Starting next school year, pasta and other grain products in schools will have to be whole-grain rich, or more than half whole grain.

This is how five other school districts are doing:

OHIO: CINCINNATI PUBLIC SCHOOLS: Jessica Shelly, food service director at Cincinnati's urban public schools, says she started serving healthier foods in her lunchrooms years before the government standards were required, so it has been easier for kids to adjust.

She has seen increased participation by enthusiastically highlighting the new menus for district kids. She says salad bars with variety -- pickle slices, banana peppers, different kinds of beans -- give kids healthy options as well as a sense that they're creating their own meals. As the standards require reduced sodium, she offers a "spice bar" of seasonings such as lemon pepper, garlic herb and cumin to make foods more flavorful.

GEORGIA: WARE COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM: In rural southeast Georgia, Stephanie Taylor, Ware County's director of school nutrition, says she doesn't have much of a selection from food service vendors. She has had a hard time finding tasty whole-grain-rich biscuits and grits, and would like sometimes to serve the white flour versions. Starting this fall, she won't be able to.

Ms. Taylor agrees that school lunches needed improvement and says kids have been more accepting as industry has formulated better-tasting healthy foods. But she worries that negative publicity about the revised menus may make kids less likely to try them.

Unhealthy eating patterns outside school make her job harder. "If kids aren't eating this way at home, how can we force them to eat like this in school?" she asks.

NEW MEXICO: ROSWELL INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT: Lyman Graham, director of student nutrition for Roswell and two other New Mexico districts, says one of the biggest problems has been finding whole-grain-rich tortillas that kids will eat. Like Ms. Taylor in rural Georgia, he doesn't have a lot of vendors to choose from, and says the whole-wheat tortillas he can get are slimy and don't hold up. So he's had to take popular breakfast burritos and wraps off his menus. He says he has had more luck with whole-wheat bread, which the kids haven't complained about as much.

KANSAS: WALLACE COUNTY SCHOOLS: The tiny Wallace County district made headlines in 2012, when students and teachers created a video called "We Are Hungry" -- set to the tune of the popular song "We Are Young" by the group Fun. -- in which kids pretended to pass out from hunger because of the new standards.

The students' key concern was maximum requirements for proteins and grains. After hearing the same complaint from many schools across the nation, USDA scrapped those mandates.

Teacher Linda O'Connor, who helped produce the video, says her district has a high percentage of athletes, and that was part of the reason kids were so hungry. She says she still hears some complaints, but kids are generally less hungry since the standards were relaxed.

NEW JERSEY: WEST NEW YORK SCHOOL DISTRICT: Sal Valenza, food service director for West New York, says he got students involved early, hosting a healthier food fair so they could sample new items when the district launched a healthier school lunch menu more than five years ago. The school also has what he calls a "harvest bar," with locally grown fruits and vegetables, and the district has removed chips from elementary schools.


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