September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Students give nutritious school lunches low grades

John Jeffrey, 7, of Sterling Heights eats a cucumber. Two years after new guidelines on school lunches went into effect, participation is down. (Photos by Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Healthier lunches full of leafy greens and whole grains will again be on menus in districts across Michigan when school opens Tuesday.

But school officials say it’s a tough balancing act.

Two years after new federal guidelines went into effect, districts are struggling to meet the nutritional standards because of higher food costs and shrinking revenue.

A recent survey taken during the School Nutrition Association’s annual national conference showed nearly a quarter of responding meal programs operated at a net loss for more than six months, as students turned up their noses at the more nutritious offerings.

The association says that according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, student lunch participation is down in 49 states under the new standards, with more than 1 million fewer students choosing school lunch each day.

In response, some members of Congress pushed this summer for the rules, set by lawmakers and the Obama administration, to be relaxed.

In Oakland County, student participation has dropped by more than 4,700 meals per day — more than 5 percent — since guidelines went into effect in 2012.

“Students need more time for their tastes to adjust to the lower sodium and 100 percent whole grains food items that are now being served,” said Lori Adkins, child nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools.

The goal of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was to improve student access to nutritious food, while addressing childhood hunger and obesity, by offering more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and items with less sugar and sodium. It was the first reform of school breakfast and lunch programs in more than 30 years.

Oakland Schools began incorporating these changes before the new guidelines went into effect.

“The challenge has been in maintaining student participation along with managing the rising costs associated with the new regs,” said Adkins.

“School food service programs are required to be self-supporting and are not subsidized by a school district’s general fund. Therefore, it’s vital for program revenues to meet or exceed expenses annually for a program to remain fiscally sustainable.”

In the Madison District Public Schools, which spent about $10,000 more in the 2013-14 school year on fresh produce than the previous year, students seem to have adapted to the changes.

“The children enjoyed the fresh greens, and salad sales in our district nearly doubled,” said Michelle Fuller, director of food service. “At the elementary level, we encourage kids to take a fresh fruit or vegetable with every lunch and at least give it a try. Many do and find they like it. ”

In Warren Consolidated Schools, Superintendent Robert Livernois said the number of free and reduced priced meals served has gone up, while the number of paying students has decreasedsince the new standards took effect.

“The students are clearly voting with their pocketbook,” he said. “What I see down the road, as these regulations become stiffer, is our paying customers continuing to vote with their wallet and going elsewhere for their meals.”

He said, ultimately, “I see the program morphing into a free and reduced meal program.”
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Holden Elementary School in Sterling Heights serves broccoli, cucumbers, ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)