Elkhorn Middle School eighth-grader Hanna Sewell sat at the lunch table Wednesday behind a foam tray that held a hamburger and french fries.
The 14-year-old said she buys her lunch in the cafeteria if there’s something tasty on the menu – if not, she packs a sack. Those golden-brown fries are a favorite among EMS students, she said, but they wish the pizza were less greasy.
“I think we would like healthy food if it tasted better,” she said, as her friends nodded in agreement, some with identical trays and others with lunch bags filled at home.
“If you notice, a lot of these kids in the cafeteria are overweight because they buy extra greasy food so they can eat it as much as they can before they get back to class.”
A few feet away, officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Education were eating lunch too.
They stopped by EMS Wednesday to promote new federal guidelines that will cut sodium, add whole grains and provide a wider selection of fruits and vegetables on the side of school lunches nationwide.
Announced just a few weeks ago, it’s the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. Some of the changes will take place when kids return to school this fall; others will be phased in over time.
Hanna said she’d like to see school lunches take a more healthful turn, especially because so many teens suffer from obesity. But asked if lunchrooms should replace french fries with green veggies, she offered a compromise instead.
“I’d rather them give us fruits and vegetables and fries,” she said.
That’s the idea of the new guidelines, said Audrey Rowe, Food and Nutrition Service administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“(Today) we saw burgers and fries, but we also saw oranges, apples, applesauce and salad greens,” she told The State Journal as the lunchroom started to clear out.
“It’s all about getting the right kind of balance. We’re still going to see pizzas, but they will be lower fat in the cheeses, lower sodium in the sauces and whole-wheat pizza dough – and at the same time there will be a salad with it.”
Rowe said the goal is to teach children how to make healthy choices – not just at school, but when they go to restaurants.
“I’ve had to unlearn bad habits, and I hope that as these children move into adulthood, it’ll just be what’s normal,” she said.
Franklin County schools are “ahead of the curve” when it comes to implementing the new guidelines, Rowe said. As part of the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, they have already introduced whole grain sandwich bread, reduced sugar cereals, and added spinach and romaine lettuce for salads.
Local kids are already making healthier choices too, both at home and the school cafeteria.
Eighth-grader Logan Harp plays soccer and baseball. The active 14-year-old is a student ambassador for the Fuel Up to Play 60 program at his school.
“We encourage students to be more active and healthy, and to be more athletic,” he said.
“Some kids think that it’s all about running and getting tired, but it actually is enjoyable, and it’s fun if you really get into it.”
Fuel Up to Play 60 is funded by a grant from the Southeast Dairy Association and the NFL. Participating schools promote healthful eating and at least an hour of physical activity a day.
Logan thinks most EMS students like school lunches, and they’d probably make room for fruits and vegetables on their trays. Teenagers already like salad, he said, but things like broccoli and asparagus are a tougher sell.
“Broccoli is alright, but asparagus isn’t,” he said. “I eat vegetables and fruit, but I don’t eat it all the time.”
Sydney Hendrix, 14, ate her usual midday meal Wednesday: a big salad bought in the lunch line. She and her friend Andrea Patino, 13, said they’d eat more vegetables if they were available, and they’d like to receive whole oranges and apples instead of just halves.
A partnership with Kentucky State University might help get more locally grown fruits and vegetables in Franklin County schools, Rowe said.
Her primary reason for visiting Frankfort Wednesday was to meet with KSU officials about changes in their agriculture program, which recently became its own college, and tour the Research and Demonstration Farm.
Rowe said KSU could sell produce grown on the farm to local schools, creating a revenue source for KSU and reducing the cost of preparing meals.
The guidelines apply to lunches subsidized by the federal government. A child nutrition bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 will help school districts pay for some of the increased costs.
Under the new rules, entire meals will have calorie caps for the first time and most trans fats will be banned. Sodium will gradually decrease over a 10-year period. Milk will have to be low in fat and flavored milks will have to be nonfat.
Despite the improvements, the new rules aren't as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped. Congress last year blocked the Agriculture Department from making some of the desired changes, including limiting french fries and pizzas.
A bill passed in November would require the department to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The initial draft of the department's guidelines, released a year ago, would have prevented that.
Congress also blocked the department from limiting servings of potatoes to two servings a week. The final rules have incorporated those directions from Congress.
Among those who had sought the changes were potato growers and food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools.
Conservatives in Congress called the guidelines an overreach and said the government shouldn't tell children what to eat. School districts also objected to some of the requirements, saying they go too far and would cost too much.
While many schools are improving meals already, others still serve children meals high in fat, salt and calories. The guidelines are designed to combat childhood obesity and are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Students qualifying for subsidized meals must have a certain number of vegetables and other nutritious foods on their lunch trays.
The subsidized meals that would fall under the guidelines are served as free and low-cost meals to low-income children and long have been subject to government nutrition standards. The 2010 law will extend, for the first time, nutrition standards to other foods sold in schools that aren't subsidized by the federal government. That includes "a la carte" foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines.
Those standards, while expected to be similar, will be written separately and have not yet been proposed by the department.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.