Delaware students foiling cafeteria food's evolution
Fewer meals being purchased as schools make transition to healthful meals
Delaware students seem to be pushing back against new healthful school lunches, opting to either pack or purchase food a la carte to avoid having to eat fruit and vegetables, district leaders say.
New federal standards for school lunches have changed what schools are able to prepare and serve to students.
Sally Rathje, the Delaware City School District's director of food services, said students will need time to adjust to the new standards.
"We are changing the culture in America right now," Rathje said. "We are trying change our behavior and taste patterns. It won't happen overnight. It takes time."
For example, schools are required to make all the breads they serve 100-percent whole grain by the 2014-15 year school. That includes pizza crust, hamburger buns, chicken-nugget breading and pasta.
They also are required to provide three-fourths of a cup of vegetables and a half-cup of fruit per meal. Those items must be different each day of the week.
"We can't have canned peaches and cooked green beans every day," Rathje said. "We have to provide a variety throughout the week."
If students don't want what's provided on the tray, they have the option of fresh fruit, such as a banana or an apple, or vegetables, such as carrots served with hummus.
There are calorie restrictions per meal based on different age and grade levels that the district also must stick to. In addition, all meals must have no added trans fat, only 10 percent saturated fat and low sodium levels.
Sodium levels are on a 10-year reduction phase, from a maximum requirement of 1,230 milligrams by the 2014-15 school year down to a 640-milligram maximum by the 2022-23 school year.
"This will be a real struggle for our meal plans," Rathje said. "We are making sure that the healthier options still taste good, but having a sodium level that low will require food vendors to completely rework their products."
Last year, the district saw a 7-percent reduction in total meals provided and an 11-percent reduction in the total revenue, Rathje said.
"This has never happened before," she said. "We always saw an increase, because the number of students increased.
"What this tells us is that students are resisting the new required healthy options."
Rathje said students don't want to take the fruits and vegetables and don't like the taste of whole-grain products.
"This will get better, but it's a slow process," she said. "Our fear is that many parents will say, 'Forget that,' and pack their students a bologna sandwich and cookies for lunch."
Rathje said she looks around the lunchroom at what students are packing and she's shocked at how many pack unhealthful options, such as Lunchables.
"A lot of people have the perception that school lunches are unhealthy, and that's just not true," she said. "Students who pack are packing food high in sodium and fat and even candy. This isn't what we're serving."
A lot of the changes the lunchroom is making aren't immediately evident, she said.
Many old standbys no longer can be served. For example, nothing is fried and all salads now feature romaine lettuce and spinach, as opposed to the traditional iceberg lettuce.
"We are changing little things bit by bit and it's a gradual process," she said. "However, students will have to get used to the new tastes of things and the look of things."
Rathje said her hope is that the new changes in the lunchroom will influence what students eat at home.
"If we are going to see the obesity trend go down in America, we are all going to have to make changes and start eating better," she said.