Hold the flavor: Georgia students eating fewer school lunches

Holeman and Finch chef Linton Hopkins instructs Knight Elementary School students on how to make a citrus vinaigrette dressing for fresh greens. The Captain Planet Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization founded in 1991 by Ted Turner, works with metro Atlanta’s five largest school districts to have learning gardens in all of their schools by 2020. David Tulis/AJC Special
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Holeman and Finch chef Linton Hopkins instructs Knight Elementary School students on how to make a citrus vinaigrette dressing for fresh greens. The Captain Planet Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization founded in 1991 by Ted Turner, works with metro Atlanta’s five largest school districts to have learning gardens in all of their schools by 2020. David Tulis/AJC Special

Some blame federal guidelines calling for less salt, fat, more veggies

Since 2010, the percentage of Gwinnett County public school students who eat school lunch regularly declined from 81 to 69 percent.

School board member Louise Radloff blames Uncle Sam.

That year, Congress signed into law a White House initiative pushed by first lady Michelle Obama to make school lunch healthier called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Many school officials, though, have complained the rules have made school lunch less tasty by reducing sodium, fats and other flavor enhancers. They want greater control over what is served to students.

“I would like to see the folks in Washington eat the lunch that our students eat,” Radloff said during a meeting last week.

To hear Radloff and some tell it, the federal government needs some cooking lessons.

The school board member sounds like celebrity chef Rachael Ray when talking about how to spice up the food it receives from the federal vendors.

Add some basil or oregano, she says.

Wisecracks about school lunch are as commonplace as mother-in-law jokes. Its most popular foods are pizza, chicken nuggets, subs and salad, said Ken Yant, director of Gwinnett’s school nutrition program. Gwinnett has an online application that allows students to rate the quality of its meals. Some give it a thumbs up. Some trash it.

Alyssa Clay, 12, a sixth-grader at Creekland Middle School who likes to cook, said the packaged food frequently lacks flavor. The salad is too cold. The pizza is hard. The cheese on sandwiches tastes “weird.”

“Nobody really likes the food,” she said.

Alyssa’s mom, A.J. Smith, said she’s often worried her daughter will come home hungry. Alyssa said she sometimes doesn’t concentrate as well in class when she doesn’t eat lunch.

The decline in the percentage of students eating school lunch has occurred as the importance of school lunch as a cheaper option for families increases. The percentage of Gwinnett students eligible for free or reduced-price meals has grown in the past decade from 41 percent to 54.5 percent.

Only seven percent of U.S. schools provide meals that meet all nutrition standards, according to a White House Task Force report. Research in some states shows students are eating more nutritional lunches and they're now eating more fruits and vegetables.

Federal officials say they're working with many school districts on reducing salt intake and keeping it palatable. A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman noted it has weblinks and tip sheets with recipes to improve food flavor in the absence of salt. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves and ginger works "great" on squash and carrots, one recipe says.

In Georgia, complaints about federal regulations have come from districts such as Cobb, Marietta and Paulding. State school board members in 2014 gave school districts exemptions from some federal requirements that limit sales during school hours of foods high in fat, calories and sodium. Congress couldn't agree on changes to the federal act when it was up for renewal in 2015.

School nutrition leaders hope to work with Congress and the Trump administration on the guidelines in 2017. Another sodium reduction mandate for school lunch is scheduled to take effect in July. Many school nutrition leaders would like greater control over school meals.

“It’s very challenging when it’s a one-size fits all structure” to provide healthy and good food, Yant said.

Gwinnett, Georgia's largest school district, served nearly 21 million lunches and about 11 million breakfasts to its 176,000 students last school year. Its daily lunch prices range between $2.25 and $2.50. The cost is lower for students eligible for reduced-price meals. Gwinnett's 69 percent lunch participation rate, while lower than previous years, is 9 percentage points higher than the national average, district officials report.

The school district grows many of its fruit and vegetables. But Gwinnett gets its dairy products and meat from vendors who are required to meet federal regulations and the food they sell is different than what’s sold to grocery stores, Yant said. Gwinnett must use whole grains — which many nutritionists say are healthier — for foods such as cereal, pasta and pizza crust.

Radloff, who joined the Gwinnett school board in 1973, remembers when Gwinnett prepared all of its meals with scant federal intervention. She’s been frustrated by the federal guidelines over the years, her ire rose upon seeing trashed food. Radloff met with one group of parents who complained about the school food.

Radloff’s hope?

“I think it should be left locally,” Radloff said in an interview of federal regulations. “Let the states and the districts handle it.”

Here is a recent sample of a weekly lunch menu from Dacula High School

Monday

Pizza by the slice

BBQ pork sammie

Deli sub

Fresh seasonal salad

Vegetarian entrée

PBJ sandwich

Tuesday

Pizza by the slice

Gwinnett’s best burger

Bold and rolled grab wrap

Fresh seasonal salad

Vegetarian entrée

Real fruit smoothie

PBJ sandwich

Wednesday

Pizza by the slice

Fiesta nachos

Wraps

Fresh seasonal salad

Vegetarian entrée

PBJ sandwich

Thursday

Pizza by the slice

Hot dog

Lasagna marinara

Deli sub

Fresh seasonal salad

Vegetarian entrée

Real fruit smoothie

PBJ sandwich

Friday

Pizza by the slice

Chicken nuggets

Asian rice bowl

Home-style croissant

Fresh seasonal salad

Vegetarian entrée

PBJ sandwich

Source: Gwinnett County Public Schools.