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Fourth graders Max and Mason at lunch. Photo: Sarah Harris
Fourth graders Max and Mason at lunch. Photo: Sarah Harris

What's for school lunch next year? Congress hasn't decided

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School may be out for summer, but school lunch is definitely on the table in Congress.

A new healthy food law went into effect in 2012. It was a flashpoint in the last congressional race in the North Country...and it's back.

It's called the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The goal is to get kids to eat healthier lunches, with more fruits and vegetables, less salt and sugar.
Schools have complained about the new rules, and House Republicans want to give schools a break.

First Lady Michelle Obama is a longtime champion of the law -- and she's lobbying Congress to keep it in place.

But far from Washington, school lunch directors have spent the last two years trying to figure out how to meet the law's requirements and serve kids healthy food that they'll actually eat.

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The fruit tray in the Edwards-Knox cafeteria. Photo: Sarah Harris Edwards-Knox veggie bar. Photo: Sarah Harris

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

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For most North Country schools implementing the new healthy food law has been really hard.  

I called school cafeterias in Potsdam, in Beekmantown, in Willsboro and Canton and Elizabethtown and Watertown and Edwards. And they all agreed on three 3 big reasons why the law’s been tough: 

Reason #1: kids are picky eaters. Just ask Max. He’s a fourth grader at Edwards Knox Central School. 

"Pineapples were up there, pineapples cut up and I don’t like pineapples," Max recalled. "So I go get one, and then I put it on my tray, and I never ate it, I covered it up kind of, and when I got up there I threw it away." 

Like Max, a lot kids didn’t like the new school lunch food. So they started bringing their lunch instead. And cafeterias made less money. 

Which brings me to reason #2: fresh produce is expensive. I’ll let Craig Orvis tell you about it. He’s food service director for Watertown city school district. Now, if anybody could convince a kid to eat vegetables, it’s Craig. He’s funny and upbeat, he buys his pants from a company called Happy Chef. 

"I have a red hat that goes with the hot chili pepper pants, I also have pasta pants and a hat that matches that, Craig says. When they see me they know lunch is ready." 

But he says the new law has cost Watertown a lot of money. 

"But we spent over $60,000 more in food. So it’s not covering what it needs to cover to add the additional fruits and vegetables."

So, fewer kids are eating a lunch that costs more to serve. 

And finally, reason #3: schools have done all this work. They’ve come up with new menus, found new suppliers and calculated the amount of grain and protein and sodium they’re serving to the gram. But they still question whether kids are actually eating healthier. Mason, another fourth grader at Edwards Knox, used to eat cucumbers before the law took effect. 

"Know how they used to have salt and pepper?" Mason remembers. "Yeah I’d like that back because I would always put salt and pepper on my cucumbers."

He says without salt and pepper, he won't eat cucumbers.  

And the food that Mason and Max hate the most is the one you’d think they’d love the most: pizza. 

"The pizza here sucks," Max proclaims.  

I ask why he doesn't like it. 

"It just doesn’t taste right." 

I ask if it's plastic-y tasting. 

"Yeah the crust tastes like cardboard."   

Edwards Know food service director Kathy Whitmarsh agrees. "Now that they’ve gone to the whole grain, low fat, low sodium, it’s like getting a piece of cardboard." 

Whitmarsh says although she’s worked really hard to stay within the nutrition requirements and keep the food tasty, it’s not easy to get right.  

"And these regulations have a good concept, I’m not against them completely, it’s just the way they’ve structured them are so stiff, I don’t feel that that teaches children to eat healthy or to not overeat." 

There are a lot of Kathys and Craigs out there: school food service directors who’ve aren’t happy with the regulations. They say they’re too strict, they happened too fast, and they put small schools with limited budgets in a bind. 

But other schools have embraced the new standards. 

Ruth Pino runs the cafeteria at Saranac Lake Central School. She serves food like quinoa and sweet potato fries. She says the regulations make sense, and it hasn’t been hard to adopt them in her cafeteria. Maybe it was because she was already buying and serving a lot of vegetables in the first place. Or maybe because, as a registered dietician, she was just more comfortable with the new ingredients. 

"I adjusted the menu to my style of life, how I eat and how I feed my children. There’s other people who don’t eat that way and so maybe it’s a little bit harder if it’s not second nature to you to put quinoa on the menu and brown rice is just what we’ve always had. It wasn’t that much of a change for me because it’s the lifestyle I live." 

Saranac Lake isn’t the only school that figured out how to make the Healthy Hunger Free kids act work. At Lake George Central School, the cafeteria initially saw all the same problems — costs up, numbers of kids eating school lunch down — until they decided to hire an actual chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. 

Superintendent Patrick Dee says now, the food is delicious. He says there are more kids eating school lunch, food like sandwiches on ciabatta, roast chicken, purple potatoes. And for the first time, he says, the cafeteria is breaking even. 

But Kathy Whitmarsh, with her cardboard tasting pizza, says the law focuses on minute requirements and misses the bigger picture. 

She says there are so many cultural forces, from poverty to obesity to body image, that influence how kids eat. What happens in the cafeteria is just part of the equation. 

"We need to teach people to eat healthy outside the institution. There’s better things than laws to get people to eat properly, I think." 

But Kathy Whitmarsh has to do her job. And depending on how, and if, Congress votes, she may be grappling with more regulations this coming school year. 

 

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