Weehawken district works with tough new dietary guidelines
by Gennarose Pope
Reporter Staff Writer
The YouTube video “We Are Hungry” made by students in Kansas in September about their newly implemented, decidedly shrunken school lunches, went viral immediately. Kids dressed in sportswear slumped over their desks and slinked into their chairs in a parody protesting the stricter federal dietary guidelines handed down by the individual states at the start of the school year.
Like other states, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture distributed the guidelines set by the newly passed federal “Healthy Hunger-Free Kid Act.” The act was finally put into action this year after President Barack Obama began to urge the United States Department of Agriculture in 2010 to revamp school lunch regulations in order to combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
The regulations require that students have more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in their lunches. Kids are offered only or low-fat milk, and the carbohydrate and protein portions have been reduced significantly.
“These are big, growing kids trying to make it through the day with four-inch sandwiches and wraps.”
“Last year the students were allowed 3.5 ounces of protein in their meals,” explained Pomptonian Food Service President Mark Vidovich in an interview last week. His company provides food to the Weehawken schools, as well as to around 60 other state districts. “Now they are allowed no more than 2.4 ounces per day.”
While the new menu is meant to make a healthier younger generation, kids are not so pleased with the change. Many simply throw out the increased vegetable and fruit part of their plate and scarf up the protein and carbs, students say.
In addition, the price of lunches has risen in the middle and elementary schools.
“I feel hungry after my meals,” 14-year-old Melissa Fernandez said last week, sitting in front of her lunch: four mozzarella sticks, a small portion of fries (potato counts as a vegetable once a week), and a large cup of tomato sauce.
“Our favorite meal is pizza, and now it’s smaller, and it doesn’t taste very good,” she noted.
Weehawken didn’t have too far to go to conform to the new regulations, as they had already provided a salad bar with fresh produce to students.
“Students have expressed concern that they are throwing out the fruits and vegetables,” Vidovich said. “But we are seeing a significant increase in students choosing fruits and vegetables from the salad bar on their own as opposed to, say, the steamed peas or broccoli on their trays. So they are compensating with that.”
Cafeteria workers are required to put the vegetables on students’ trays in order for the meal to meet federal standards, which is why students have to throw them out if they don’t want them.
Because of the federal changes, the district has been compelled to raise the price school lunch in the middle school from $1.25 to $1.40 to compensate for the higher price of produce. The elementary school lunches went up $0.10, and the high school lunches stayed the same.
Bigger than a sixth grader
Carmen Deida, Weehawken’s food service manager, has found the start of the year a little more stressful than usual because, she said, children are asking why there is less food.
“They’re not very happy, because they don’t want fruits and vegetables,” she said. “They’re hungry. We give them vegetables like spinach, green beans, and corn, but they don’t want it. These are big, growing kids trying to make it through the day with four-inch sandwiches and wraps.”
Mohammed Merchant, 17, feels as if they’re forced to eat the protein and carb portions of a sixth grader, but he enjoys the vegetables.
“I love my greens,” he said.
Making the adjustment
Weehawken’s schools had fewer changes to make than other districts. They already did not serve soda. They also already provide what Vidovich termed the “Farm Stand,” which includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, as much as they want.
“The parents in this community have always been interested in promoting nutrition,” Vidovich said. “We will have meetings in October to try and meet the parents’ needs, the school principals’ needs, and work with the capabilities of the different facilities they have.”
There may be more financial ramifications in the future.
“We don’t know what the impact on the district’s financials will be because we’ll be purchasing a lot more vegetables,” Superintendant Kevin McClellan said. “There’ve been a lot of droughts this summer, and produce is significantly more expensive. And it has to be on the tray whether they ask for it or not.”
Leomaris Aponte, 16, hasn’t like vegetables since she was little(er). She hates broccoli.
But she has proposed a solution to the new regulations, she said: “Stuffed crust pizza.”