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Food for thought: parents, students unsatisfied with school lunch

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Smaller portions and higher prices have some high school students complaining about the new school lunch menu — and brown-bagging it in protest.

A Facebook group organized by South Jefferson Central High School students had 162 participants as of Friday morning. And South Jefferson is not the only district fielding complaints from parents and students. New federal regulations for school cafeterias restrict calories and proteins, substituting whole wheat and fresh produce. But some parents are concerned about whether their children, especially student athletes, are getting enough food to get them through classes and sports practice.

Cynthia A. Overton, South Jefferson’s food service manager, said the portions for the menus is out of local hands, set by federal officials.

“Yes, it’s a big change, but it’s a change in the positive for all of us,” Ms. Overton said.

The standards come from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Schools that can show they are serving lunches meeting federal standards can receive an additional 6 cents in federal funds per meal served.

Lunch price increases were also mandated. Lunch at South Jefferson for students in grades 6 to 12 now costs $2.15, a 10-cent increase from the previous year. The price increase was the minimum allowed by the USDA, based on usage numbers from the previous year. The maximum price increase the district could have implemented is 47 cents.

Parents including Sarah J. Gordon and Jamie L. McGuire, who both have children in Sackets Harbor Central, say they understand that the changes are out of the school’s hands. They were working on making a statewide petition Friday afternoon for teachers, students and parents to sign to take to state officials.

“The portions they are giving to kids are so small,” said Ms. Gordon. “Many people are buying a double lunch.”

She said elementary students at Sackets Harbor are being served just one chicken nugget as a main course offering; middle and high school students are getting three.

“All of my kids and their friends are coming home exhausted and hungry,” she said.

On Thursday, South Jefferson students who were not protesting lunch were offered eight ounces of flavored yogurt, with a side of celery and carrot sticks, graham crackers and chilled peaches. In addition to those options, students could choose a wrap bar, a themed salad bar or a packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

On Friday the menu was homemade pizza, lettuce, cauliflower and apple. Other main course options available through the month are chicken patties on a bun, meatball subs and mini french toast.

“The days of the huge ladle of gravy added to a big pile of mashed potatoes are gone,” Ms. Overton said.

Sackets Harbor Principal Jennifer L. Gaffney-Goodnough said she has only received one formal complaint, in an email from the mother of a seventh-grader. She had the cafeteria manager respond with a graph showing what the district can and cannot serve according to the nationwide guidelines.

“We’re doing what we need to be compliant,” she said. “When people point fingers, they need to know who to point fingers to.”

Mrs. McGuire is pointing her finger away from school lunches. She says she understands there is a serious childhood obesity epidemic, but changing lunch portions is not the answer to the problem for her.

“The kids need to be active,” she said. “Parents need to be held accountable.”

Packing a healthy lunch for her children is an option for her family, but she worries about those who are on the school’s free and reduced lunch program.

“I don’t think they’re going to advocate for themselves,” she said. “Lunch might be the only substantial meal for them. The school needs to be providing them with a well-balanced meal.”

Watertown City School District has been weaning its students to adapt to the guidelines for a few years, according to Food Services Director Craig P. Orvis. He said he serves five chicken nuggets to students throughout all grade levels. He keeps weekly protein and calorie maximums under control out by offering lighter meals throughout the week.

“At this point, it’s been quiet,” he said. “If there have been complaints, they haven’t voiced them out loud to me yet.

He said their average daily participation for school lunch is down by 72 students this year, but the enrollment is also down about 45 students. He said he does not feel hot lunches are down because students are not happy with what is on their tray.

Other districts, like Belleville Henderson Central and Lowville Academy and Central School, are correlating the decrease in purchased lunches to unsatisfied students.

At Lowville Central, those who are still buying lunch are supplementing it with home-packed snacks.

“Many of our students, particularly our athletes, are feeling hungry by the end of the day,” Superintendent Cheryl R. Steckly said.

Thursday’s boycott may not have been completely effective: 181 lunches were purchased Thursday. However, Superintendent Jamie A. Moesel said the protest was noticed through the district.

“We’re glad the students brought it to our attention, because we’re worried about it too,” Ms. Moesel said.

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