CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - Every day millions of kids, perhaps yours, sit down to a school lunch.
No doubt they've told you this year that things aren't as good as they used to be. Actually, they're better, as in healthier, than they've ever been.
Whole grains, limited sodium, low-sugar. They're all on the menu this year. While dieticians may be applauding the changes, most kids are giving them a thumbs down. The meals have gone from one extreme to the other. Lunches that used to be chicken nuggets, fries and a cookie are now a smaller chicken patty on a whole grain bun with spinach salad and peaches on the tray. Why the changes? Starting this school year, the government is waging a war on childhood obesity and the front line is now the school cafeteria line.
At St. Vincent de Paul Grade School in Cape Girardeau, meat sauce is now spooned on top of whole grain pasta. The roll is made with wheat. Salad is on the side with peaches on the tray too. Looking for dessert? You won't find it.
Kaya Newkirk is in the fifth grade, about the lunches he said, "They don't taste like they used to."
These tiny palates are used to more fat-laden, cheese-ridden, processed foods. Following the government's strict guidelines, on everything from portion size to sodium to calories, has cooks like SVS's Jenny Thornton, bogged down with pages of paperwork and the daunting task of conjuring up meals the kids will actually eat.
"It's hard. The kids like carrots and ranch dip so we serve that. I've introduced a spinach salad this year, which I'm surprised they like," Thornton said.
But as you watch the kids turn in their trays, you wonder how much good the program is doing. We watched as the kids dumped tray after tray of spaghetti, salad and peaches in the garbage. The most popular item on the tray was the roll.
"I wish the USDA could come here and see how much food is being thrown away every day. It's just throwing away your dollars," laments Thornton.
Schools can opt out of the program, but most can't afford to. SVS is one of them. The government pays them six cents for every lunch served. On top of that, the school buys groceries from the USDA at low prices.
"We couldn't afford to offer the free and reduced lunch program and keep our lunches affordable for our other students," said principal Kay Glastetter, "For us, opting out isn't an option."
If you opt out of the program, you lose the savings on food and the free and reduced lunch program.
At Franklin Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, 90 percent of the population is on the free and reduced lunch program. The school simply couldn't afford to opt out. Since Franklin is a public school, their government food is free.
"We have more choices," said principal Rhonda Dunham, "so that's good. The kids are eating a lot more salad. But they really don't like the whole grain stuff."
No one argues that kids don't need a healthier diet. What they do argue is that school lunches aren't the reason kids are obese. It's the fast food outside school hours and the lack of exercise. A parenting issue, a societal issue, they argue, that is being laid at the front door of schools to fix.
"Sometimes it does feel like, oh this is another thing we have to fix. But I really think they're just trying to get us to think about nutrition," counters Dunham.
Get ready kids and parents, next year even more restrictions will be phased in. The hamburger patty gets even smaller, the whole grains go to 100 percent instead of the 50 percent required this year and sodium must be gone completely. Next year will be even more challenging for cooks as they look for creative ways to feed our children.