It was only 11 a.m., and already 60 fidgeting children had streamed down the lunch line at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, eagerly eying the pans of corndogs and beans, a steady barrage that would continue in five-minute waves until, some 300 lunches later, each class had eaten.
At the end of the serving counter they paused and peered into the milk cooler, pondering whether to grab chocolate or regular, while those lucky enough to have spare change in their pocket might make a dive into the most coveted bin — a freezer full of ice-cream.
Here’s what the kids don’t know. The chocolate milk is fat free, the ice-cream is low fat, and as for the corn dog? Try turkey dogs wrapped in whole-grain dough.
“We try to sneak it in there,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.
There’s actually a term for that in school nutrition circles: “stealth health.”
Despite the age-old stereotype, school lunches are the most mulled-over, fought-over, thought-out meal kids are likely to eat all day.
“School food historically gets a bad rap,” said Sherry Held, the school nutrition director in Macon County. “But where can you get a meal as nutritious as ours?”
Held and her counterparts are quick to rally to their own defense.
“People say school meals are not healthy, but let me tell you something, they are,” said Diane Shuler, the school nutritionist in Swain County.
But it isn’t easy.
“It gets kind of complicated,” Shuler said. “People think all I do is feed kids.”
Meeting a litany of federal standards yet fixing something kids like — particularly within the dour budget at their disposal — is a challenge to say the least.
“We probably all need counseling, but it is rewarding,” Held agreed. “If the students are eating good food, it is going to help fuel their minds and bodies.”
School lunches are undoubtedly a big business. While school lunch planners at the local level agonize over their weekly menus, trying to shoehorn all the food groups into a meal kids will eat, giant food manufacturers are employing teams of lobbyists to work the halls of Washington, ensuring pesky details like the health of children don’t stand in the way of bringing their products to market.
Despite the powerful interests behind fried tater-tots and crinkle fries, the federal government is moving slowly but surely toward healthier school lunch trays.
National media made great hay out of the fight over school lunch standards last month — a now notorious debate over whether pizza constitutes a vegetable.
New federal standards for school lunches will be unveiled in January, something that has school nutrition directors waiting somewhat nervously.
“We are about to see a sweeping overhaul in the child nutrition program,” said Lynn Harvey, the state director of child nutrition. “We know it will include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
It will undoubtedly cost more. The federal government will ante up an additional six cents per lunch to help defray the costs, but Harvey has heard estimates that the cost of providing a single lunch will increase by 56 cents.
Money problems limit solutions
Several years ago, North Carolina took matters into its own hands. No more waiting on the federal government to make school lunches healthier. The state would come up with its own guidelines.
Unfortunately, many of the lofty goals — like requiring whole grains and banning fryers — were ultimately side-lined because they cost too much. Instead of standards, they were downgraded to mere “recommendations.”
“The problem is those standards were never funded by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Harvey.
The standards were tested in 134 elementary schools across the state, but when it came time to make them policy, without funding to help schools make the transition, they were deemed impossible and unfair.
Healthy foods not only cost more and require more staff time to prepare, but school districts would have to replace equipment such as fryers with ovens — something that would cost a single county hundreds of thousands in new kitchen equipment.
At the time, Francis worked in one the few school districts to pilot the standards contemplated by the state. One in particular sticks out in Francis’ mind: the idea of meeting the USDA food group quotas for each and every lunch. Previously, schools counted servings of fruits, vegetables, protein and so on during an entire week and took the average — rather than applying the exact food group standards to each meal.
“It was next to impossible. All of us were in tears trying to plan menus and make it work,” Francis said. That idea was soon dropped.
Unfortunately, so were the other standards.
But, local school districts have voluntarily implemented the recommendations from the state anyway — roughly 80 percent in all. Fruit plays a starring role in desserts, from apple crisp to sliced pears. Tacos are made with ground turkey. Fried foods have been phased out almost entirely.
All the milk is either skim or 1 percent. Salad dressings are low-fat.
In Macon County this year, all chicken products are now whole-muscle chicken, rather than processed parts.
It’s something Shuler would like to do in Swain County as well, but the cost is prohibitive. Whole-muscle chicken products are simply too costly, she said.
One of the biggest pushes has come in whole grains. Bread and buns are whole grain, even the pizza crust. It means brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat pasta is being slipped into dishes. But, it’s a balancing act.
“If it doesn’t taste good, even if you follow all these guidelines, they aren’t going to eat it,” Held said.
It’s the challenge all school lunch directors face.
“You can make something as healthy as you possibly can, but if it is not something they like, it is going to end up in the trash can,” Francis said.
Francis understands picky kids. For years, she stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse before going to out eat with her kids. There was no way she was going to order and pay for something on the menu her kids wouldn’t eat anyway.
Meanwhile, food companies have seen the writing on the wall. From Sara Lee to Kellogg’s, they offer special wholesale lines for school cafeterias that have lower fat, sugar and salt contents than the grocery store varieties.
Sure you might see pizza on the school menu but looks can be deceiving.
“Our pizza has whole-wheat crust and reduced fat-cheese and turkey pepperoni,” Francis said.
These facts are strikingly absent from the printed lunch menu, however.
“We don’t really want to tell children they are eating whole-grain pizza. We just tell them, ‘You get pizza today!’” Held said.
Held has learned the importance of baby steps in the five years that she has been with Macon County Schools.
“We try to ease them in to making better choices, like whole-wheat spaghetti and slowly eliminating the not so healthy choices,” Held said.
They are also learning what simply doesn’t take. Kids are savvy. They check the school lunch menus, and if they don’t like what’s on it, they bring their lunch that day. The cafeterias can ill-afford to fix food that no one will buy.
Students have summarily rejected whole-wheat mac-and-cheese for example, Held said. In Swain, they learned that lesson the hard way.
The first time Swain County put whole-wheat mac-and-cheese on the serving line this year, kids eagerly loaded it onto their trays but were less than enamored with it once they sat down and started eating. Hoping once more, they went got it again the next time it made a lunch line appearance.
But the third time it turned up on the menu, they wouldn’t touch it. The school cafeteria had to crank out 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — the staple substitute when standard menu items are rejected — as kids came through the line.
The problem, however, is that Swain County ordered copious volumes of whole-wheat pasta at the beginning of the year that still has to be used up.
“Live and learn, live and learn,” Shuler said.
Ultimately, the hope is that the good eating habits introduced at school will bleed over into their home life.
“If you daughter came home and said, ‘Mommy I tried sweet potato wedges at school today and they were really yummy,’ you might say, ‘Really?’” Held said. “We do the best we can with the time we have with them.”
Any K-12 student eligible for free or reduced lunch can now get breakfast at no cost — yes, that’s totally free — thanks to a new state initiative that recognizes kids don’t learn as well when they’re hungry.
School lunch by the numbers
• $2.79: federal reimbursement for students on free lunch
• $2: school lunch for elementary student paying out of pocket
• $3.75: average cost of preparing a lunch in Haywood County
• 16 cents: cost to school for 4 ounces of juice
• 30 cents: cost to school for an apple
• $15,000-$20,000: cost of an oven to replace a deep fryer
• 35 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on food
• 65 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on salaries and overhead