You can lead students to kale, but you can't make them eat.
That's what they've found at C.W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, N.Y. After the school implemented new federal nutrition standards, which call for less salt, sugar and fat and more healthy options and were rolled out starting last summer, the number of students buying lunch dropped from an average of 650 per day to about 400.
"With the changes in the kinds of lunches we were able to provide to students, they just wouldn't eat it," says David Hamilton, superintendent of the Baldwinsville district. "They would turn right around and throw out produce that we had purchased maybe at quite a cost to us. In upstate New York, produce is not cheap."
Similar complaints are being heard around the country. A recent study from the National Institutes of Health found that lots of students in Los Angeles are throwing away or not eating fruits and vegetables they're served. Schools there throw away $100,000 worth of uneaten food every day, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"It's those kids who can afford to get their meals elsewhere that are leaving the program," says Dianne Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service directors. "There are a million fewer kids eating school lunch under these standards."
The School Nutrition Association supported the standards when they were first approved by Congress, back in 2010. Now that group says that while the guidelines are great, their members need more time and a bit more flexibility to put them in place.
Time To Adjust
Congress is currently considering a proposal that would allow schools to call a time out if kids aren't buying the whole grains and leafy greens.
"If you are financially struggling, if you can show six months of operating loss due to these new rules and regulations, you can qualify for a temporary one-year waiver," says Brian Rell, chief of staff for Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, who chairs the House agriculture spending subcommittee. "It is not what has been reported in some media outlets, a rollback of standards or anything like that."
But it's going to take time for kids to adjust to their new diets, health advocates note. Just as kids are taught math and history in the classroom, they should be learning better eating habits in the cafeteria, says Ginny Ehrlich, director of the childhood obesity project at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"Any of us who have worked with young people know that their first reaction might not be positive, but over time they come around," Ehrlich says.
She has some data to back that up. Two surveys underwritten by the foundation were published this week that found a majority of schools were selling as many lunches as they had before the standards were implemented and that the number of kids complaining about their choices had gone way down.
"There is some element of growing pains in this, but we're really trying to showcase the success stories and the bright spots," Ehrlich says.
Meanwhile, the percentage of schools that offer lots of prepackaged foods but nothing by way of produce is going down fast. Kids are eating more fruits and veggies as a result of the standards. And the program has an influential champion in Michelle Obama.
The first lady has become something of a lightning rod in the conservative blogosphere, repeatedly described as a "tyrant" on this issue.
"By leaving the program, we will not be required to follow these onerous guidelines, pushed by and large by Michelle Obama, who last I checked had been elected to no one," Rick Petfalski, school board president of the Muskego-Norway district in Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Obama gives about as good as she gets on this issue, however.
"We are currently spending $10 billion a year — did you hear that, $10 billion a year — on our school lunch programs," she said last month at a White House lunch with schoolchildren who won a healthy recipe contest. "So it's not surprising that there are certain interests that are resisting change and trying to take us back to the old ways of doing business, because for them there's a lot of money on the line."
Lobbyists working to ease the standards say it's unfortunate the issue has become personalized around the first lady. Pratt-Heavner suggests press accounts last week about Sam Kass, the executive director of Obama's Let's Move! initiative, being "banned" from the School Nutrition Association's annual meeting were overblown, since the group's policy staff had met with him days earlier and the administration was well represented by other presenters at the conference.
"We're in no way saying that the goals of the law aren't supported, just give us more flexibility on the implementation," says Lucy Gettman, director of federal programs at the National School Board Association.
Hamilton, the superintendent in upstate New York, decided to create his own flexibility. If he can lure back 193 of the roughly 250 students who have left the cafeteria line, his high school will make enough money to pay for the free lunches that the feds used to pay for.
And, he says, the school is putting in a salad bar for the new term.
"It's a mistake to say it's either a federal program and its requirements, or it's going to be corn chips with nacho cheese on them," he says.