The one-time king of the cafeteria has fallen.
What used to be a 12-inch wrap, one of the most popular items inside the Barrington High School cafeteria, was reduced to eight inches in September, and hungry students have noticed the change.
“Last year, if there was a line, I would have waited,” said one high school student recently. “Now I’m out of there. I’m not waiting.”
That student’s comments were echoed by several of his peers. Their gripe wasn’t with the menu — they all had positive things to say about lunch choices — but with the amount of food. Students said hot lunches aren’t what they used to be … and they’re right.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently implemented new regulations dictating what students can have for school lunch and, perhaps more noticeably, how much of it they can have.
The regulations dictate numerous aspects of how school lunch programs must operate including grain and calorie intake requirements. One student said he ate three sandwiches from home and a hot lunch to avoid being hungry the rest of the day.
In Barrington, one effect of these guidelines is the smaller wrap while lunch sales as a whole are down across the district.
Public school students in town purchased 740 less lunches last month compared with Oct. 2011. It’s a worrisome trend for Chartwells, which operates the school lunch program in Barrington.
School officials in Barrington are also concerned.
They raised lunch prices this year on the heels of lower sales last year, with the understanding that if program revenue falls too short of the lunch program’s operating cost, the district is on the hook for making up the difference.
Barrington High School Assistant Principal Nicole Varone said she has witnessed a drop in students lining up for hot lunch. She said the central complaint is portion size and those who bring lunch to school tend to have bigger meals than those who don’t.
Barrington, however, doesn’t seem to be the only district dealing with the problem.
Melissa Read is director of dining services for Chartwells in East Providence and Barrington. She said both of her communities are seeing a drop in participation and she pointed to what has become a widespread viral video of Kansas high school students mocking the program.
The students’ “music video” shows athletes falling down at practice from hunger among other bits of satire critiquing the program.
“We have to figure out how to make it bigger, how to meet their needs and still stay with the guidelines,” said Chartwells nutritionist Nancy Roberts.
A survey is in the works for distribution to local students. It’s aimed at helping Chartwells see what other food selections students may be interested in and how alternative choices can potentially be added to the menu in accordance with USDA guidelines. Chartwells and district officials are also exploring the possibility of an after-school kiosk at Barrington High School for athletes and other students before practice or games.
Love food not waste
The new regulations also appear to be having a roundabout impact on the amount of food being thrown out.
Students must now select at least one half-cup of fruit or vegetables for a meal to be reimbursable; Ms. Read said the government subsidizes every meal served to students whether it be free, reduced ($.40) or full-price ($2.85).
Ms. Read said that students who attempt to cash out without a fruit or vegetable are asked to go back and pick one up though this doesn’t necessarily mean the item will be eaten. Officials said many students will pick up the apple or salad but later toss it in the trash without touching it.
It’s the reason why signs bearing the message “Love Food, not Waste” have been posted around the high school.
Both Ms. Roberts and Ms. Read said one of the most critical steps toward limiting waste and solving this new school lunch puzzle as a whole is education. Information on the new regulations have been sent home to parents, Chartwells had representatives on hand for school open houses earlier this year and the company has also posted information about the school lunch program on its website.
“The district is committed and we’re committed to trying to teach these kids that there’s a healthier lifestyle and this stuff is good for them,” Ms. Read said.
There are also individual food advisory groups at each school where Chartwells employees meet with district officials and students.
Ms. Read said it allows students to let Chartwells know what they like. It also gives Chartwells the chance to explain the regulations in a way that might not hit home through e-mails and flyers.
“I love to hear what the kids have to say, whether it’s positive or negative,” Ms. Roberts said.
“It’s one of my very favorite parts of the job.”
As for the wraps, students may be happy to learn a solution is on the horizon. Ms. Read said Chartwells has been working with its distributor to make a 10-inch wrap. Ms. Roberts said that could be at Barrington High School by the end of this month.
Now and then
New regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture have resulted in changes in school cafeterias. Here are a few of the more notable differences between last year and this year:
- Calorie count — In 2011, lunches for students in kindergarten through fifth grade were capped at 664 calories while middle school lunches (grades 6 to 8) were capped at 783 and high school lunches at 846. This year, K-5 lunches must be between 550 and 650 calories, middle school lunches between 600 and 700 calories and 9-12 lunches must be between 750-850 calories.
- Vegetables — All student lunches served this year must contain at least one half-cup of fruit or vegetables to be eligible for government reimbursement. Last year, fruits and vegetables only had to be offered to students.
- Grains — While lunches at all grade levels previously had minimum grain requirements, the updated regulations now contain maximums as well. A single grain is considered to be one ounce of bread or a half-ounce of cooked pasta or cooked rice. Students K-8 must have at least one grain per day while high school students must have at least two per day. Elementary school students must have either eight or nine grains per week, middle school students must have between eight and 10 grains per week and high school students must have between 10 and 12 grains per week.
- Meat/meat alternatives — Like grains, meat and meat alternatives (such as cheese) had a minimum last year though now the category also includes maximums. This category includes chicken, turkey and legumes, among other items. Students K-8 are required to have one ounce per day while high school students must have two ounces per day. On a weekly basis, elementary school students must have between eight and 10, middle school students are required to have either nine or 10 and high school students must have between 10 and 12. One interesting effect of this regulation can be found at the middle school, where students can be served hamburgers but not cheeseburgers.
- Milk — School lunches are currently required to serve fat free milk only. This is different from last year, when school could serve 1 percent or 2 percent.