By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Students have been throwing out more food uneaten this school year, when new federal lunch rules led to the required serving of more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Wayne Vespa, the director of school nutrition services, said the amount of food waste doubled at the start of this school year in September, when the new rules limiting calorie, sodium and fat intake for school lunches went into effect, compared with the end of last school year. The amount has tapered off since.
“I would say it was somewhat overwhelming at first,” Vespa said of the extra trash. “We spent a couple months trading back and forth, trying to come up with new ideas and getting feedback not only from managers at the schools but the (cafeteria) line staff.”
Students have been throwing away the fresh fruits and vegetables untouched, Vespa said. Additionally, the kids will eat the burger or sandwich meat but throw away the whole grain bun.
The volume now is not as high as it was last fall, but it is still higher than last year. “We still find an excessive amount of waste because it’s not something the kids traditionally eat at home,” he said. “With everything, there’s a learning curve, and the acceptability factor for raw vegetables, or cooked vegetables for that matter, and fruit is somewhat low.”
Nutrition services has been keeping an eye on what the students choose, and what they will eat, to make decisions on a menu Vespa said is still being fine tuned as the school year progresses. He said they keep the most popular items and have gone through a trial-and-error process to figure out the kinds of fruits and vegetables the students will eat.
However, the changes have been expensive. Compared with last year, the School Department this year is buying twice as much fresh fruit and vegetables, Vespa told the School Committee in December.
But he said he hopes the trend will continue downward this year, and over time, the younger students will adjust to the new menu.
“After the third grade, they’ve already established their eating habits,” he said. “So it’s a long-time venture here. I think the initiative is really meant for kindergarten to third grade. If you can teach them at that age group that vegetables are a good thing, they’re fun, they’re nutritious, then when they get a little older, they’ll be more used to seeing these things on their tray.”
School Committee members said they have heard from parents and students that the kids do not like some of the menu changes.
“I’ve heard plenty of students say they’re unhappy,” committee member Lynne Hajjar Kumm told the full committee last week.
Hajjar Kumm said the new guidelines are burdensome on schools and are an unwanted intrusion that is forcing schools to serve food many kids will not eat. “The federal government, in my opinion, is dictating to the districts what we can and can’t serve,” she said in an interview Thursday. “When you have to start having to limit not only sugar and fat but now salt, and it has to be fresh this and that, you’re going to find kids are not going to be as excited to get this.”
Purchasing school lunches slumped in the grammar schools too, a change Vespa told the School Committee last month was due to the new nutrition guidelines.
Several high school students on Friday said they know of a lot of people who have started bringing their own lunches to school. Two juniors, Brianna Woods and Anthony Nguyn, said they did not mind the change so much, but did not think just changing to wheat bread would solve the country’s weight problem.
“White to wheat? That’s fine, but I don’t think it’s enough,” Nguyn said.
Vespa worked last spring to have a new menu in place for the start of this school year, sampling different kinds of foods with whole grains and low fat cheeses and pricing fruit and vegetables from local vendors.
Several favorite items remained on the menu, such as pizza and burgers, Vespa said, but the buns were swapped out with whole grain buns and the cheese was replaced with low-fat cheese. The grammar schools use only whole grain breads, and the high school, which this year is about half-and-half white and wheat breads, will follow next year.
The schools must serve four ounces of fresh fruit or vegetables on each tray, and must offer another four ounces if the students want.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in February 2012 completed new nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program that took effect in September and were designed to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity. Those new guidelines, the first in 15 years, set a range for calorie intake, and limited the proportion of calories from fat in food served for breakfast or for lunch.
The regulations also limited the amount of sodium in food offered, required at least one serving of fruits and of vegetables per meal and allowed only nonfat or low-fat milk.
Massachusetts in 2011 created its own school nutrition guidelines that generally followed the federal government’s policies, but also included removing junk food and sugary drinks from vending machines and not allowing any kind of food sale fundraisers on school campuses during school hours.
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