Western Pa. districts look to woo students back to lunch line

| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, 2:56 p.m.

Seba Pereira is a hungry teenager.

Pereira, 18, a senior at Quaker Valley High School buys a lunch every day and packs food as well to satisfy his hunger.

“Buying a lunch is not enough,” said Pereira of Sewickley. “I would need to buy two and then some more,” he said.

Pereira and some other students across the country are opposed to changes to school lunches. Some school districts are feeling the effects and trying various methods of coping with the dissatisfaction.

The program underwent a major overhaul this school year to help combat childhood obesity.

Federal rules set calorie limits for lunches.

Plum School District food Supervisor Maryann Lazzaro, a registered dietitian, said previously no maximum calorie limits were in place. Now, the calorie limit for lunch for a child in kindergarten through sixth grade is 650. The maximum for a seventh- and eighth-grader is 700 calories. The maximum for a high-school student is 850 calories, Lazzaro said. Students must take fruit or a vegetable whether they plan to eat it or not.

The changes required by a 2010 federal law called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are the most significant in decades, say nutritionists and school lunch directors.

Lunch participation rates at both Oblock Junior High and Plum High School plummeted more than 50 percent the first week of classes in August after students joined in a Twitter protest.

“We are going hungry in the middle of the day,” said Sean Doyle, 17, a senior at Plum High School, who organized a brown-bag protest that amassed him thousands of social media followers and prompted a similar boycott in Minnesota. “The government can do things outside of school to fix childhood obesity.”

“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.

Lazzaro said September's participation rates in the Plum School District were “down significantly” from September 2011. She said the numbers will be presented to Plum School Board members during an Oct. 16 food-service and nutrition committee meeting.

Participation rates have been affected less drastically in other areas. Quaker Valley's total participation rates for September are only down about 8 percent from rates in 2011.

Michelle Marker, director of programs and marketing for The Nutrition Group, which manages food-service operations for the Chartiers Valley School District, said September's participation rate at Chartiers Valley is down “slightly” from September 2011. She said the numbers would be generated later this month.

Officials in the districts said it is too early to tell how the decrease will affect the cafeteria budgets' bottom lines.

“I'm not going to panic yet,” Lazzaro said. “It is what it is.”

Lazzaro is encouraged to see that students are not throwing the fruits and vegetables in the trash.

Chicken nuggets, chicken patty sandwiches and pizza remain favorites with Plum students.

Also, elementary-school children are “embracing salads.”

Ann Condon-Meyers, a registered dietitian at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said food presentation goes a long way with making selections attractive to students.

She cited as an example that placing fruit in dark-colored dishes makes it appear “bright.”

“Presentation is a big deal,” she said.

Quaker Valley's food services director Jennifer Reiser said that students felt like they were eating at a country club after cafeteria employees improved food presentation.

Sue Allen, manager of the Chartiers Valley School District cafeterias, said some students simply need a little nudging to try new foods.

“Some kids don't have wheat bread at home,” said Allen of Collier. “They say, ‘The bread is dark.' I encourage them to try it.”

Allen also finds that allowing students to sample food at times wins them over to eat something new.

Allen said favorite selections among students are pizza, the grilled items and tacos.

And some students aren't complaining about the selections. They just want more — particularly given the fact that school lunch prices increased in many districts this year.

“Portions were bigger last year. I'll eat something again before the game,” said Brandon Malick, a junior who plays football in the North Hills School District.

“The portions are too small,” agreed Zane Yanosko, 13, and a Norwin School District eighth-grader.

Condon-Meyers said that the mandated calorie limits are “more than enough” to sustain students.

She theorizes that if children are hungry after lunch, they are not starting their day the right way.

“I suspect they aren't eating breakfast,” Condon-Meyers said. “They are very hungry, and they should be. You can't solve the problem by serving too much food at lunch and not eat breakfast.”

Karen Zapf and Matt DeFusco are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Zapf can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or kzapf@tribweb.com. DeFusco can be reached at 412-388-5811 or mdefusco@tribweb.com.

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