Students and stomachs in Western Pa. are grumbling over portion, selection of school lunches
North Hills High School running back Sam Holdorf and outside linebacker Brandon Malick would like more on their plate when they buy a school lunch.
“Portions were bigger last year. I’ll eat something again before the game,” Malick, 17, a junior, said while ingesting a medium-sized quesadilla in the school cafeteria about seven hours before North Hills faced off against Penn Hills on Friday.
School lunches underwent a major overhaul this school year to help combat childhood obesity, which affects 17 percent of children and adolescents in the United States — triple the rate of 1980, according to the Centers For Disease Control.
Federal rules set calorie limits for lunches. Students must take fruit or a vegetable whether they plan to eat it or not. The changes mandated by a 2010 federal law called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are the most significant in decades, say nutritionists and school lunch directors.
Ironically, they’re leaving some kids hungry.
The portions are too small, said Zane Yanosko, 13 and a Norwin School District eighth-grader.
“Everyone’s just getting two lunches anyway,” he said.
The only tasty thing this year is pizza, he said. In the past, he liked a side of fries or popcorn alongside his pizza. Fries aren’t available this year.
Resistance to new menus generated a Twitter protest by senior Sean Doyle at Plum High School.
“We are going hungry in the middle of the day. The government can do things outside of school to fix childhood obesity,” said Doyle, 17, who organized a brown bag protest that amassed him thousands of social media followers and prompted a similar boycott in Minnesota.
“They took away the 2 percent milk. Then they took away everything we like — cookies and Pop-Tarts,” said Ali Baker, a senior at Rockford High School in Rockford, Minn.
“They should have talked with parents and kids before changing the menu so much,” she said.
At North Hills High School, lunches restrict protein and bread portions. French fries are baked instead of fried; fresh fruits and vegetables abound. The school is offering black bean salads for the first time.
Senior Rachel Collins, 17, said she misses the soft pretzels on the menu last year, while Daniella Alban, 15, a sophomore, said the french fries are better than they used to be.
“Some of the food is better. The fruit is fresh now. I don’t like canned fruit, sugary fruit soaked in syrup,” said Alex Rode, 17, a North Hills senior.
But Derry Area High School junior Josh Shugars, 16, calls the lunches “disgusting” and said “they don’t fill us up.” Some items are more expensive, he said.
Bread and pierogies are whole wheat, “and it doesn’t taste right,” he said.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, and Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp have proposed legislation to overturn the standards. King criticized Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a ”misguided nanny state” in which “because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet,” King said in a statement.
Vilsack’s wife, Christine, is opposing King in November for his House seat.
The ‘nanny state’ accusations are absurd, said Heather Mangieri, a dietitian and Pittsburgh spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which represents 74,000 dietitians nationally.
“Government is subsidizing lunches. So it has a right to decide what is served in schools,” she said.
Even Doyle said his protest “has kind of died down.”
Plum School District food Supervisor Maryann Lazzaro said the changes to the menu are the most extensive she’s seen in 33 years of work.
“Fruits and vegetables are not a bad thing,” she said. “Repeal of this? That’s just not going to happen,” she said.
Her counterpart at North Hills, Eileen Watkins, whose 47 workers serve about 2,600 lunches in six schools each school day, said some students like the variety they are getting.
“They do have a right to have their voices heard, and we’ll work with them and listen to their ideas,” she said.
Rossilynne Skena, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, contributed to this report. Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at [email protected].