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More and more unsatisfied north country students brown-bagging lunch

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Potsdam Central School District senior Troy O’Brien said he always purchases school lunches, but the menu changes this year have made him reconsider doing so.

“I am not for it,” he said from behind a tray with a turkey hot dog on a wheat roll, three-quarters of a cup of baked beans and two apples. “I do not like them. Smaller portions are not good.”

He is not the only one who feels that way. U.S. Department of Agriculture-mandated calorie, wheat and protein guidelines for school lunches are leading to more students brown-bagging meals rather than staying hungry, which means less reimbursement and revenue for school districts.

On Monday, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, heard concerns about the new meal requirements from district Food Service Director David J. Gravlin and Superintendent Patrick H. Brady.

Mr. Gravlin said that fewer students are eating the school-supplied meals and that more of them, such as athletes and those with food allergies and gluten intolerance, were bringing their own lunches because of the menu changes, which require more vegetables and fruits and smaller portion sizes.

Mr. Gravlin said that in the past, the district served 800 lunches a day “pretty regularly,” but now is down to about 600, which could translate into a $100,000 loss in revenue this year.

Ogdensburg City School District is down 57 lunches this year, and Lowville Academy and Central School District is seeing a 150- to 200-student drop in lunch daily participation.

“We rely on reimbursements,” said Lowville Food Service Manager Steve M. Fuller. “If we don’t have participation with students, then we lose the reimbursement.”

Additionally, some money that the district budgeted for lunch is getting thrown in the trash, via bananas and broccoli.

“At the beginning of the year, we definitely had more waste,” Mr. Fuller said.

With the waste comes hunger. According to Brian Mitchell, Ogdensburg’s cafeteria director, athletes are among those who feel they are not getting fed enough, and are finding it difficult to get through after-school practices.

MORE TO COME

Mr. Fuller said he understands the regulations are meant to be positive, and he is planning to have an open meeting in October to explain the changes to parents. However, he said he is not going to worry about next year’s regulations just yet.

“I’m hoping that before next year, these changes will be readjusted,” Mr. Fuller said.

These are the changes for which students and lunch managers are preparing:

n In 2013-14, breakfast will start to incorporate whole grains, limit calories and do away with trans fats.

n In 2014-15, breakfast will include 5 cups of fruit per week. All grains, including breading on meat, must be whole grain, and sodium will get its first of three reductions for all meals. Reimbursable breakfasts must have at least half a cup of fruit or vegetables.

n In 2017-18, breakfast and lunch will get a second reduction.

n In 2022-23, sodium will get its third reduction.

Arlis M. “Artie” Frego, food service manager for the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said he has been hearing the same concerns from all the schools he works with.

“We have children living in poverty that are bringing their own food and not utilizing their entitlement program. That’s a waste of resources for that family. They’re entitled to either a free lunch or a lunch for a quarter. If they’re bagging their lunch, it just doesn’t make good sense,” he said.

SURVEY SAYS ...

To alleviate lunch-related issues at Sackets Harbor Central School District, administrators had students take a survey on which entrees they love or hate, and which meatless items they would like to see. The district has lost 8 percent to 10 percent of its daily lunch participation this year.

Superintendent Frederick E. Hall Jr. said students favored pizza, chicken patties and tacos. Students also wanted “real” pasta back, not whole wheat.

The more serious surveys indicated that many students hoped for bigger portions during lunch.

The district gained the attention of parents after high school students complained they were not getting enough chicken nuggets to fill them up for the remainder of the school day.

Parents Sarah J. Gordon and Jamie L. McGuire created a Facebook page, “School Lunch: Smaller Portions, Hungry Kids,” and a petition that has received more than 2,000 signatures since Sept. 14.

“I think they could get larger portions if they make the food healthier,” Ms. Gordon said. “They’re still serving tacos. They’re still serving chicken nuggets.”

She said she wishes students had access to a salad bar instead of being allowed to buy two or three lunches, negating the calorie restriction.

“One of Jamie’s boys who’s in the third grade bought a double lunch earlier this year,” she said. “He plays football after school. I know there are a lot of kids who are overweight, but it’s not because of school lunches.”

Other students, Mr. Mitchell said, choose to supplement lunch with snacks, from home or from vending machines.

TOO MUCH, TOO SOON

The lunch issues other school districts are facing are because cafeteria managers are making the changes too quickly, said David W. Thoma, Beaver River Central School District food service manager.

“I do believe kids, and adults for that matter, when you make a change, they can’t take it all at once,” he said.

Mr. Thoma’s lunch menus are not yet completely compliant, but he said he is fine with that as long as students can adjust fluidly with the slow and steady changes.

Portion sizes eventually will be reduced this year as the menu is written and rewritten. Items like three-bean salad may need to be taken off the menu because most students are not eating it, he said.

However, the changes come with a cost; Mr. Thoma’s district had to increase its food budget by 30 percent to accommodate them.

Earlier this year, turkey hot dogs were traded in for lower-sodium Honest John’s beef and pork hot dogs. Previously, Beaver River served two hot dogs at meals; because the new variety of hot dog is longer, only one is served now. Mr. Thoma said he did not hear many students complain about the reduction from two hot dogs to one.

He said daily participation is down, but not by much when the reduction in enrollment is taken into account.

“Some kids did grumble, but they’re accepting the changes,” Mr. Thoma said. “I do believe that making the slow and steady changes over time will be more effective.”

By working on the menu slowly, he said, he hopes to keep the lunch’s nutrition out of the trash.

“We don’t want kids to be hungry,” said Beaver River Superintendent Leueen Smithling.

Mr. Gravlin said that he understands students’ frustrations, but that some changes may be on the way.

With the litany of changes, Mr. Gravlin said, the state had advised schools to offer only one dining option, at least initially.

“We were advised to keep it simple and go on one menu and expand on that as we go along,” he said. He said he is planning to expand on the menu as soon as he can.

“I’m thinking before the end of the school year, and I’m hoping within the next couple of months,” he said.

Johnson Newspapers writer Sean Ewart contributed to this report.

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