Student's say a 'one size fits all' program doesn't work for everyone.

The federally mandated National School Lunch Program has left a bitter taste in the mouths of students across the nation. In most cases, however, the bitter taste isn’t from the food itself.

Locally, students at the Sleepy Eye Public School (SEPS) say the problem is that the new federally mandated program is a “one size fits all” program that only targets the overweight student, not the average or active student.

The new requirements say that per day, students in grades 9-12 are allowed a maximum of 850 calories per meal. Student athletes are saying that’s not enough.

The prevalence of being overweight and obesity in the United States is dramatically higher now than it was a few decades ago, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is true for all age groups, including children, adolescents and adults.

This is a concern, USDA officials say, because individuals who are overweight or obese have an increased risk of many health problems, which are not limited to adults. Weight-associated diseases and conditions that were once diagnosed primarily in adults are now being seen in children and adolescents with excess body fat, according to the USDA.

On the other side of the equation, many Americans spend most of their waking hours engaged in sedentary activities.

While this may be true in America, athletes at SEPS say that while they are offered a balanced plate of fruits, vegetables, a meat entree, whole grains and milk, by practice time they are hungry again, forcing them to pack an additional lunch.

Students said before the new requirements went into effect they were already bringing extra food to school to eat before practice. Now, they say, they are bringing more.

The students said they see the importance of eating a healthy, balanced meal during school. However, they feel like their decision making power has been diminished.

For instance, students said they are required to take a minimum of one serving of a fruit and a vegetable per meal. For those who chose not to eat the fruit or vegetable serving, it weighs heavy on their minds that it will go to waste.

“I’m required to take it, but I’m not going to eat it so it gets wasted,” ninth grade student Miguel Martinez said. “I don’t like wasting food.” 

Student Kalyn Haas agrees.

“Vegetables like peppers aren’t always a “kid-favorite,” but you are required to put it on your plate.” 

To provide students with variety, each day the menu comes with various choices and students may choose one of each. The choices include two entrees, three vegetable and two fruit options.

Food Service director Mary Sandgren pointed out that while the new program requires students to take a fruit and vegetable option, they can’t force them to eat it. She also agreed that the standards are not set for student athletes.

“It’s an average meal and the standards are set for students across the country for this region,” Sandgren said. “The majority of the student body are three-sport athletes. Back when I was in school I brought food to eat before practice too, because I knew I was going to be hungry.”

New requirements on saturated fat, sodium and transfats have also created a stir among students. Before the new federal requirements, condiments were set out and students could take as much as they wanted. Now, they say, condiments such as ketchup, are limited to two packets per student or they come in pre-portioned cups.

The students said are accustomed to eating vegetables with a ranch dipping sauce or smothering fries with ketchup.

In an effort to give back decision making power to the students, Sandgren has set up a food committee within the student council. There, students are given a voice to share issues with the new requirement and brainstorm ideas.

One idea the food committee has suggested is to have a snack bar set up before practices where athletes can purchase high energy snacks. Another suggestion has been to have a diner station in the cafeteria during lunch time where familiar foods like homemade pizza can be offered. Both ideas, so far, are still in the planning stages.  

Students also say the switch was a drastic change from what they were used to. For the most part, however, they said their complaints haven’t been about food quality or taste.

“Sometimes they add things we aren’t familiar with,” eighth grader Sylvia Perales in reference to the sometimes unfamiliar foods students are asked to try such as Jicama (pronounced hickama), a relative of the bean family.

“It would have been better if they (introduced the program) as a process. But it’s alright and it’s healthy,” Perales added.

Sandgren says they sometimes offer foods students aren’t as familiar with to broaden the student’s scope of tastes.

“How do you know you don’t like something until you’ve tried it for the first time?” she asked.

While school lunches must meet federal meal requirements to receive subsidies, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities. Sandgren said they are working with new recipes and foods to fit within the requirements and that students like.

Sandgren added that the new requirements have not only changed the lunch menus, but also the way many people do things. Routines have changed all the way from the local kitchen staff at the school district to companies that provide food service to the districts. Sandgren added there is always resistance to change.

“These requirements are a change for every district in the nation,” Sandgren said. “Fruits and vegetables are the future. The sooner we can get kids to eat healthy, the better the chance will be that they will embrace this lifestyle.”