Amber Smith doesn’t want to blow the discord over new USDA guidelines for school lunches out of proportion.
The mother of an active seventh grader at Central Heights Middle School said she would just like to see bigger portions on her child’s plate.
“I do understand Mrs. Obama is trying to fight childhood obesity, and I am very supportive of that,” Smith, whose daughter Robin Moyer is a volleyball player and cheerleader, said. “But I think the new guidelines punish athletic kids who are not obese because they still need the calories they used to get. They are not getting enough to eat at school.”
First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals earlier this year that they said would result in more healthful meals for 32 million students who participate in school meal programs every day across the nation.
The new U.S. Department of Agriculture meal requirements raised standards for the first time in more than 15 years, a USDA news release said. The new requirements — designed in part to trim fat, increase fruit and vegetable consumption and limit calorie intakes in students’ diets — are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by the first lady and signed into law by President Obama.
The program focuses on school lunches in 2012-2013, with a future emphasis on providing more healthful breakfast options.
Dallas Natt, a senior standout athlete at Ottawa High School, said sometimes he needs to supplement his school lunch with other food.
“I actually like some of the things they have now,” Natt said. “I like their riblets. Some days I feel like, ‘Yes, I am [getting enough food]. Other days, I eat food that’s off the menu.”
Marcia Servatius, director of dining services for Chartwells School Dining Services, which provides food service to Ottawa and other school districts throughout the U.S., said her first question for students who say they aren’t getting enough to eat is to ask them what they are putting on their plates.
At OHS, students have 11 meal options each day, Servatius said. Ottawa Middle School students have seven options per day, while elementary students have three options, she said.
“When I went to school, you went through a serving line and they handed you a tray of food — that was your only option,” Servatius said. She has been with the Ottawa school district for 23 years — 18 as director of dining services.
On Friday, OHS students had menu choices that included chicken nuggets, two types of pizza, deli-style sandwiches, salads, grilled chicken and corn dogs — as well as numerous fruit and vegetable options, ranging from bananas to broccoli. Not to mention two items highlighted on Friday’s menu board: “ham and cheese on flatbread fold” and “turkey reuben panini on WW.”
“I don’t think it’s a matter of there not being enough food,” Servatius said. “I think if a student says they are not getting enough to eat, it is probably because they are choosing not to eat the food that is available.”
On Thursday, Natasha Smith, an eighth grader at West Franklin Middle School, dined on meatballs, macaroni and cheese, carrots and apricots at the school.
Smith said she thinks the meals at her West Franklin school are healthful and taste good, but “there’s just not enough food.”
The cousin of Central Heights seventh grader Robin Moyer, Smith also plays volleyball. And like her cousin, Smith said she has noticed a decline in her performance.
“I about fainted during one volleyball game,” Smith said. “I felt dizzy and weak. I think it was from a lack of food.”
Smith said her teammates also have complained about being hungry after school.
“I don’t feel like I can do as much,” Smith said of her performance on the court.
Smith said her coaches have told players to eat when they can and drink plenty of water.
Smith and Moyer said they have both started taking protein bars to school.
“Strawberry is my favorite,” Moyer said. “They help some, but I still get hungry.”
Moyer, like her mom Amber Smith, said she understands the first lady’s push to fight child obesity and thinks it is a worthwhile cause.
“I just think it punishes the kids that are not obese and need the portion sizes we used to get,” Moyer said.
But Ottawa dining services director Servatius said some portion sizes — namely fruits and vegetables — have doubled under the new guidelines. She said the amount of grains has been cut back — the rolls might not be as big, for instance — but portion sizes are fairly consistent with pervious offerings.
Servatius said the Ottawa school district already had been proactive about adjusting its menu to offer more healthful choices — including more fruits and vegetables.
She said she has not heard students complain about the selection of food or the portion sizes.
“I think they were already used to the changes we had made in the menu before, so it wasn’t really that big of an adjustment,” Servatius said.
But one OHS sophomore said she thinks portion sizes have shrunk.
“I think the serving sizes have got smaller,” Nisa Pickens said Friday as she ate her lunch in the Cyclone Room. “I think the [changes to the school menu] are horrible. I’m growing, so I need more food. I think we need more food.”
Brittany Pfizenmaier, a freshman volleyball player at OHS, said Friday’s lunch “filled me up.”
But, Pfizenmaier added: “I usually have to get some more food after school before [volleyball practice].”
The new USDA guidelines come with a minimum and maximum number of calories that can be served to students — varying be age groups — each day.
“The calorie totals are averaged over five days, so you could have more calories one day and not as many the next, depending on what you choose to eat,” Servatius said.
Daily calories allowed under the guidelines are:
• Grades kindergarten through fifth: 550 to 650 per day.
• Grades sixth through eighth: 600 to 700 per day.
• Grades nine through 12: 750 to 850 per day.
Central Heights mom Amber Smith contended that 600 to 700 calories per day was not nearly enough for a middle school student athlete.
The USDA calorie guidelines for its national school lunch program seem to be in contrast with “A Guide to Eating for Sports,” produced by healthkids.org, which suggests a daily intake of 2,000 to 5,000 calories is needed to meet energy and growth needs.
Smith’s niece, West Franklin’s Natasha Smith, said she agreed with her aunt.
Smith and a group of her friends at West Franklin have started the Facebook page, “Against School Lunches,” to draw attention to their concerns. The group’s site isn’t the only Facebook titled, “Against School Lunches,” as other students have taken to the web. To access the West Franklin group’s site on Facebook, go to www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Against-School-Lunches/466489693382586
Smith said she and her friends want to start a letter-writing campaign to legislators and federal officials to get the USDA to approve larger portion sizes.
Their Facebook page — which they just launched a few days ago with 10 “likes” thus far — also includes a link to the parody video: “We Are Hungry,” produced by a different group of Kansas students. The video has attracted nearly 900,000 views on YouTube.
Servatius groans at the mention of the YouTube video.
She thinks the parody is out-of-step with what most students actually think of the school lunch program.
“We had students make a poster promoting our school lunches, which we didn’t expect,” Servatius said. “That was a nice surprise.”
Servatius said it’s been difficult to measure the success — or at the very least, acceptance — of the new guidelines because they have only been in place a few weeks. On a national level, nutritionists and government officials have said they are still trying to figure out the best way to enforce the new guidelines and to limit the amount of healthful food thrown away by students.
“We don’t want healthy trash cans,” Kern Halls, a former Disney World restaurant manager who now works in school nutrition at Orange County Public Schools in Florida, said at a school food service conference this summer in Denver. “We want kids who are eating this stuff.”
Servatius said she has tried to get the word out about making healthful eating choices by speaking with classes and offering food tastings.
She said the OHS food service menu already included the proper number of servings each week of dark green and red/orange vegetables, fruits, legumes and meats and meat alternatives.
“We’ve had to scale back the grains,” she said.
Students have embraced some of the new menu items, Servatius said, so much so in one case that it caught her by surprise.
“The elementary students like humus. They serve it once a week now,” Servatius said with a laugh. “I thought it would have flopped. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Herald staff writer Bobby Burch contributed to this article.