After months of research, Channel 3 Eyewitness News is sharing the results of a study conducted with public school systems across Connecticut about changes to the federal school lunch program that went into effect in September, the first changes to be implemented in 15 years.
High school students certainly notice things are different in the cafeteria lines. The students WFSB spoke with especially miss pizza on Fridays.
The addition of whole grains is one of the big complaints.
All breads served to students now need to be 51 percent whole grain, trans fats are totally off the menu and sugar and sodium have been reduced.
Students now need to select from fruits and five subgroups of vegetables which now must be offered at every meal, and there's no getting around them landing on the lunch tray. The students must take them if the school wants to qualify for its federal reimbursement.
"Not adhering to the guidelines, that's not in the cards. You can't do that," said Food Services Director for Bristol schools Greg Boulanger.
The Bristol school system serves 8,700 students. Boulanger said the new guidelines are great in theory, but they've been having trouble putting them into practice.
"The kids don't necessarily prefer healthier meals right now," he said.
As our survey shows, his opinion is in the majority. Of the 160 surveys sent out, 22 percent were returned.
Responses showed that 55 percent of those responding to the survey feel their students are dissatisfied with the menu changes. In addition, 83 percent said students are not eating all of the items on their tray, compared to 48 percent before the lunch changes were made.
Food service directors filling out the anonymous surveys didn't mince words with their comments. One person responded, "I think to tell the students what to do or what they have to take is stupid in plain English."
Another wrote, "School lunch, in my opinion, is not the problem. After-school snacks in front of the TV or Xbox is more of a problem."
"The kids go straight from the tray line to the cans and dump what they didn't want on their tray," one of the comments read.
Concern over food waste is a common theme.
So how do you get children to eat those mandatory fruits and vegetables? Lonnie Burt, the food services director, for Hartford's public schools had an idea.
"We looked to our own staff and said ‘what are your favorite vegetables? What do you eat at home? What do you feed your children at home?' And that's where we got a lot of our great ideas," she said.
Susan Maffe, president of Connecticut's School Nutrition Association, is food services director for the city of Meriden. She said those fruits and vegetables may save the next generation from obesity.
"I think it's going to have a lifelong impact," Maffe said.
But eating healthier doesn't come cheap.
Nearly every school district responding to the survey said school lunches are costing more.
Burt said the switch to whole grain rolls alone cost Hartford's school system $65,000, and the change cost Bristol schools an additional $50,000 this year as compared to last year.
"Our participation rate is down, so we have less revenue coming in and we're spending more on food. It doesn't make sense," Boulanger said.
After the school nutrition changes were made in September, there was a loosening of some of the regulations allowing flexibility with the amounts of grain and meat allowed on the menu, but that flexibility won't continue unless there are adjustments to the federal requirements.
When United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak recently visited West Hartford, Channel 3 Eyewitness News asked him if he expected changes to the program.
"The only change that I would expect and anticipate is that kind of flexibility could very well be permanent," he said. "It was a one-year effort. It was very well received. There's legislation on the part of several members of Congress to make that a permanent part of the program and we don't have any objection to that."
But he did say that the overall calorie limits and age-appropriate serving sizes are here to stay.
For the full survey results, click the following links: