Students take a bite out of new, healthier school lunchroom regulations

From spaghetti to egg rolls to taco salad, students at Central High School in St. Paul are filling up their cafeteria trays at lunchtime. New federal regulations keep an eye on calorie limits and portion sizes for teenagers, but not all students are taking advantage of the "all you can eat" fruit and vegetable offerings.
Photo By: Calista Dunbar
“Teens need to understand that mommy and daddy aren’t going to always be there to make sure you’re eating right and healthy."

On first look during the new school year, it wouldn’t seem much has changed at Central High School in St. Paul.

Classes are overcrowded with students. Hallways are as congested as someone’s nose with the flu.

In the cafeteria, however, a food fight is happening. Due to new federal rules, schools across the country are required to serve healthier options and set calorie limits for their students.

Beware of flying bananas.

“The meatballs that were with my spaghetti look like soggy brown Styrofoam. And the chicken looks like it’s made out of tofu,” said Central High School student Tara Solvang.

The 17-year-old senior believes the overall quality of cafeteria food has suffered because of the healthier requirements. She’s not alone.

Also unhappy with more restrictive servings, the new law led some students in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Jersey to boycott their school lunch program.

“It’s like I eat breakfast in the morning on the first floor, and by the time I reach the fifth floor for first period, I’m out of breath and hungry after going up 25 million stairs,” Solvang said.

The regulations go hand-in-hand with an increase in the childhood obesity rate, where 17 percent, or 12.5 million children ages 2 to 19, are considered obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The law is also designed to help students develop healthy eating habits by providing less carbohydrates (bread, grains) and offering more nutritious foods. For instance, students are required to take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables.

Jean Ronnei, director of nutrition and custodial services for St. Paul Public Schools, said that the new requirements follow My Plate, which is essentially the time-honored food pyramid “but just on a plate.”

“Some of the new changes have been dramatic, while others have not while following the 2010 dietary plan. If you remember the food pyramid that was shown to you as a kid in elementary school, then My Plate is simple to follow,” Ronnei said. “The plate shows what the students should have when taking a meal: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.”

That has led to more fruit and vegetable options — kiwis, mangoes, watermelon, bananas, celery, tomatoes, carrots and green beans, to name a few. But even with those healthier benefits, there are drawbacks with meal planning, Ronnei said.

“With these new guidelines, it’s hard to be creative while creating meals,” she said. “Sometimes we come up with something, and then the guidelines come in and say, ‘Oh, sorry, can’t do that.’ We try the best we can, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

If students don’t like the cafeteria food offered at their school, they also can pick from a To-Go Bar featuring salads, parfaits, peanut butter-jelly sandwiches and packages of fruits and vegetables.

While in line, several students commented that they like To-Go because it’s less congested and features better looking choices. Teens can also bring their own food from home.

Ellise Wright, a 17-year-old junior at Central, hasn’t noticed a decrease in her appetite while making the cafeteria rounds. However, she does miss unique offerings like a brunch-combo that featured French toast.

“It was a … cinnamon swirl-type thing with apples in a syrup glaze that came with scrambled eggs or home fries. That was a good lunch,” Wright said. “I have no idea why I liked it so much. Maybe it was because it’s something one wouldn’t expect a public school to have available for lunch.”

Despite losing some favorites, Wright said she understands why changes were made. Though teens might not understand the benefit now, eating healthier while in high school could lead to greater self-sufficiency.

“Teens need to understand that mommy and daddy aren’t going to always be there to make sure you’re eating right and healthy. We’re young adults and will be out of the house attending college. We need to learn how to do it ourselves before we’re on our own,” she said.

“If we learn these skills now — eating right, portion sizes, balanced meals — then our brains will be programmed to do that without a second thought.”