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New federal lunch rules tough to swallow

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- In West Fargo's schools, one of the biggest topics of conversation the last few of months hasn't been the lead-up to today's election.

It's been the changes in what's served at lunch.

"It's the hot topic of the year. The campaign is a close second," says Jan Sliper, director of food service.

With new federal limits on the amount of carbohydrates and protein that can be served, the lunch line has a new landscape, Sliper said.

"We don't serve slices of bread anymore. Three years ago, if you walked into our cafeterias, we always had loaves of bread out with jelly and peanut butter," Sliper said.

"The students used to love the Olive Garden style breadsticks. I even miss that. We just have to reminisce," Sliper said.

Kids across the nation have been reported as being fed up with school lunch nutrition guidelines laid down by the federal "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010."

The law was inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama's efforts to fight childhood obesity. It puts upper-end calorie limits on school lunches: 650 calories for grade school, 700 calories for middle school and 850 calories for high school.

It also requires serving a minimum amount of fruit and vegetables, while limiting carbohydrates, such as breads, and proteins, mainly meats.

The complaining at metro schools is not to the level of the kids from Sharon Spring, Kan., who put out the video satire, "We Are Hungry" to the tune of Fun's "We Are Young."

But many local students, particularly older ones, aren't swallowing the government's rationale for what they feel is school lunch rationing.

At Fargo's South High School, some seniors said it's hard to tell the students' grumbling from the stomachs rumbling.

"A ton of food gets thrown away," says Kyra Hodny. And there's not enough of what the kids actually like, she says. "It's not enough food! I don't eat meat and they don't make PB&Js" she said.

"It's so limited," added Carissa Hillen.

"They try to push healthy stuff, but it's tasteless," Katlyn Krabbenhoft. "It's really bad."

"It sucks. Now we have to buy more filler stuff," Kelsey Rumple said.

Donna Tvedt, Moorhead School District's food service director, said the biggest change is the number of servings of meat and carbohydrates that can be served.

Last year, there was no limit on the size of a serving of meat. This year, in kindergarten through fifth grade, the students have to have at least 1 ounce of meat a day, and between 7 and 10 ounces a week. In grades six through eight, it's a minimum of 1 ounce a day and between 8 and 10 ounces a week, Tvedt said.

"That's not a whole lot," she said.

High school students get a daily minimum of 1 ounce of meat and must be served 9 to 10 ounces a week.

"And we've got to stay right within those 9 to 10 ounces. We can't go under, we can't go over. It's a real head-scratcher," Tvedt said.

As far as grains are concerned, grade school kids get 1 ounce of breads or other grains a day and 8 to 9 ounces weekly, Tvedt said. Middle schoolers need to get 1 ounce a day, and 8 to 10 ounces a week. In high school, its 2 ounces daily and 10 to 12 ounces per week, Tvedt said.

"We were using a 3-ounce sub (sandwich) bun. If you put it on (the menu) every day, by the time Wednesday comes along, you've used up all of your grains," Tvedt said.

To meet the guidelines, Moorhead High School cut down the size of its submarine sandwiches and serves them twice a week rather than every day.

That change may have left a sour taste in some student's mouths, but it hasn't led to a full-fledged food fight, said Clarice Bentson, the head cook at Moorhead High.

Instead, some of the changes have been embraced, particularly for fruit. Pineapple, watermelon and fresh strawberries are popular, she said, though other kids insist they won't eat the items and promise them a quick trip to the landfill, even if the lunch workers put them on their plates.

"It's not a bad thing to teach them to try some of these things," Bentson said.

During one recent lunch hour, many of the students walked to their seats with trays heavy with fruit and a main dish of rotini in alfredo sauce.

"You try to pile up on veggies to pull" through the day, junior Drew Anderson.

"The options are pretty limited," for food he said. "We get pretty hungry," by the end of the day.

Several students said they had food stashed in their lockers.

"There's just not as much as there used to be," said junior Nick Uglem. "It's just more important to bring food to school."

Younger students seemed to adjust to the changes a bit better.

"We get a lot of fruit," said freshman Luke Heinisch, whose tray held a small mountain of fiber, balanced by a pile of rotini alfredo. "Not enough pasta," he said, around a mouthful.

Eli Johnson, another freshman, agreed the fruit was good but wanted more.

"We should be able to go through the hot lunch line twice," he said. "I'm always hungry" by the end of the day.

Sliper said the changes made to lunches over the years have been good.

The district dumped its deep-fat fryers six years ago, and no longer serves deep-fried items, she said.

An informal poll of janitors at West Fargo District indicated that food waste hasn't gone up, Sliper said.

In fact, one lunch worker said students seem to eat more of their food.

But more children at the elementary schools are using a flanking maneuver in this food fight: bringing lunch from home, particularly in the younger grades, Sliper said.

"I think the kids are worried they are going to have to eat something they don't want to eat. One mom said she can't put a fruit or vegetable on (her son's) plate. He just won't eat it," Sliper said.

The schools offer fruits and vegetables for breaks, but lunches from home almost always have chips in them, Sliper said. And even the occasional sugared soft drink.

"I can't say what I'm seeing coming from home is healthier," Sliper said.

"It's been an interesting year, we're trying to find our way with the regulations and still put together a good meal," West Fargo's Sliper said.

"At one of our elementary schools, the kids didn't like the little toasts" used to replace the beloved breadsticks, Sliper said. "And finally one of the helpers just said, 'Oh, just blame Michelle Obama.'"