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Students push back on new school lunches
Posted 9/25/2012 7:59 PM ET

Healthier school lunches, required for the first time this year, are getting some push back from students and teachers across the USA who say they are still hungry after eating the noon meal.

A new YouTube video parody, created by two teachers and some high school students in Kansas, has students singing We Are Hungry as they try to make it through the school day. Among the lyrics: "Give me some seconds/ I need to get some food today/ My friends are at the corner store/ Getting junk so they don't waste away." The video had been viewed more than 100,000 times by early Tuesday evening.

Other students from Massachusetts to South Dakota have spoken out about the new meals on websites and blogs, and some are brown-bagging it as a boycott to the healthier school meals.

"We had chicken nuggets one day. Last year we got six and this year we only got three," says Callahan Grund, a 16-year-old football player at Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas, who is featured in the video. "We had pork cutlets the other day and that was really small compared to last year."

At the heart of the hoopla: New government nutrition standards, which went into effect this year in a bid to combat childhood obesity, require schools to serve more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. And for the first time, there are limits on the calories that can be served at meals based on students' ages. Plus, there are limits on the amounts of grains and proteins that can be served over the course of a week.

The standards raise the nutrition bar for the first time in more than 15 years. Schools must meet the standards to get federal meal reimbursements.

VIDEO: 'We Are Hungry'

STORY: Schools scramble to serve healthier lunches

STORY: Retired military leaders want junk food out of schools

There are several key differences between the previous standards and the updated ones. For instance, the old standards for lunch required that a daily minimum of 825 calories be offered to seventh through 12th graders; the updated standards call for a minimum of 750 calories and a maximum of 850 calories that can offered at lunch for high school students.

The meat guidelines are more complex. The old standards set a 1.5- to 2-ounce daily minimum of a meat or meat alternate such as cheese, peanut butter or tofu. Now there is a daily minimum and weekly maximums. So for instance, high school students must be served at least two ounces of a meat or meat alternate daily as a minimum, but that can't exceed 12 ounces on a weekly basis. Younger kids are offered less. There are similar requirements for grains.

The biggest part of the problem with the new school lunch is the reduced amount of protein from meat in the meal from previous years, says Brenda Kirkham, art and publications teacher at Wallace County High School. She came up with the idea of the We Are Hungry video (set to the tune of fun.'s We Are Young) because she felt like she was "starving" after lunch.

"We wanted to give kids a voice and make fun of something that's very frustrating for us -- but not be over-the-top angry."

Linda O'Connor, an English teacher at Wallace High who wrote the lyrics for the song in the video, says students have been complaining all year that they're not being offered enough food. "Most of our kids are active in physical education and sports, and they work on farms. That two ounces of meat daily wasn't enough. By 1:30 to 2 o'clock they complain about how hungry they are.

"We didn't do this for political purposes. We did this for educational purposes. We didn't expect it to hit a nerve like we have. We wanted to teach kids, if there is something they want to speak out against, go ahead and do that. That's part of being here in the great land of the United States of America."

Grund calls Sharon Springs "a very small farming and ranching community. I do own animals. I do chores before school and I have football practice after school and then chores after that, and I need a large healthy meal to help me get through the day."

Still, nutrition experts say that there's not a lot of beef behind complaints from the students and teachers about the updated standards.

Before the new standards were implemented, some schools may have been serving a lot of protein to keep their customers happy, "but none of us need as much protein as a lot of us eat," says Leah Schmidt, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association and director of Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills School District, in Kansas City, Mo. Besides meat and meat alternatives, students get protein in milk and legumes, she says.

"It's an outdated idea that kids aren't getting enough protein -- most kids are eating twice the recommended amount," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that fought for healthier school meals.

Eating 850 calories at lunch is enough for most high schoolers, she says. "Not all students are linebackers, and we shouldn't feed them like they are."

A large national study showed that under the old standards, high school students were offered an average of 857 calories a day, and they were taking only about 787 calories on average, Wootan says. So the current maximum of 850 calories is right on track, she says.

The government's dietary guidelines give a range of calorie recommendations for 14- to 18-year-olds from 1,800 calories a day (from all meals and snacks) for someone who is sedentary to 2,400 calories for an active teen.

Student athletes who may need more food throughout the day can purchase additional a la carte items to supplement their school lunch or bring a snack from home, Wootan says.

Schmidt adds, "Really active athletes may need more than the lunch, but that's not our normal customer in the school lunch line. Not everybody needs all those calories. Lunch is not meant to be 100% of their calories for the day."

She says her district lets students take as many fruits and vegetables at lunch as they want from self-serve bars. "That's probably the healthiest way to add more calories if they're not getting full at lunch."

O'Connor says the teachers and students have no problem with the extra produce. "We love the extra fruits and vegetables. We like the freshness factor of those."

The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of U.S. kids are overweight or obese. A 2010 law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for all food served in schools.

The standards are designed to improve the health of about 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and about 12 million who eat breakfast there as well. Kids consume about 30% to 50% of their daily calories while at school.

Posted 9/25/2012 7:59 PM ET
Students appear in a video parody of the national school lunch policy mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
YouTube
Students appear in a video parody of the national school lunch policy mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.