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New school lunches leaving students hungry or eating food from home

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POTSDAM - 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. Brady said the district is selling roughly 200 fewer meals per day this year and facing a potential loss in revenue of up to $100,000.

Mr. O’Brien, Gina Lomastro and Kaylee Peck were eating lunch together in the cafeteria Thursday afternoon. Mr. O’Brien was the only one in the group who purchased a school lunch.

Last year, the students say the odds are each of them would have been eating a school lunch.

Mr. O’Brien said he has considered bringing his own lunch to school. “Definitely,” he said, adding a lunch brought from home would likely include a sandwich and “other kinds of side food.”

Mr. O’Brien said that some students are purchasing multiple lunches each day, but at $2 per meal that’s not a step he was willing to take just yet.

“I have thought about it, but it would pile up and get really expensive,” he said.

Ms. Lomastro and Ms. Peck both brought their lunches on Thursday and said they have been doing so all year.

“Last year I bought lunch when I knew there was a lot of options, but this year I knew there wouldn’t be because they only serve one thing,” Ms. Lomastro said.

Ms. Peck, who is on a gluten-free diet, said the district no-longer even offers meal options that she can eat.

“Most of the stuff this year I can’t eat,” she said.

Last year though, that wasn’t the case, as the district offered a salad bar.

“I bought school lunches all last year,” she said.

When asked what would get them to once again purchase school lunches, both young women said they would like to see the salad bar return.

“That’s all I ever got last year,” Ms. Peck said.

For Ms. Lomastro, though the absence of a salad bar isn’t the only thing she would like to see change, as she would like to see the district return to offering multiple dining options each day.

Potsdam Central School Food Services Manager David J. Gravlin said he understands student’s frustrations, but noted that some changes may be on the way in the near future.

Heading into the year with the litany of changes, Mr. Gravlin said the state had advised schools to keep it simple and 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,” Mr. Gravlin said, adding he’s 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, adding that the district does offer two dining options each day, in addition to a variety of a la carte items.

At the high school and middle students have the option of either a turkey or ham sandwich and at the elementary level students have the option of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each day, except for Wednesday when pizza is served.

Mr. Gravlin explained that a student eating peanut butter and jelly five days a week would be a violation of the new rules, but a student eating such a lunch four days a week with pizza on the fifth wouldn’t.

While things may never return to the way they were before the new regulations, Mr. Gravlin said when he does expand the menu, he’s hoping to begin including a vegetarian option.

To have a salad bar though, would be nearly impossible, he said.

“With all of the record keeping that’s being required, we have to make sure each kid has a certain calorie count each week,” he said, adding a self-service salad bar would make that impossible to do.

“What some schools are doing is preportioning everything. It adds to your costs because you’re preportioning everything and you have more waste,” he said. “I would like to get to the point where we can offer prepared salads, but back to the salad bar, unless things change, I don’t think we’ll ever get back to that.”

As for students with gluten-free diets or other allergies, Mr. Gravlin said a little-known fact is the new regulations don’t apply to them.

“Most of the allergies are reported to us and we can cater to them,” he said, explaining that often times the school is only made aware of more serious allergies like a peanut, fish or egg allergy.

“A lot of the times for those who have specific diets parents may not think it’s major and not want to bother us, but we would be willing to help them out.”

The problem though doesn’t exist solely in Potsdam, as the new regulations are impacting schools all across St. Lawrence County and beyond. And more regulations are on the way.

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

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

■ 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 cup of fruit or vegetables.

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

■ 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, says he has been hearing concerns from all the schools he works with.

“Kids are basically hungry. The calories are the biggest thing. They just don’t feel they’re getting enough calories to get through the day,” Mr. Frego said.

He said in rural schools like those in the north country many students participate in athletics and the meal portions aren’t enough for them as they take to the practice or playing fields after school.

“I think portion sizes are the biggest concern for parents,” he said.

Mr. Frego said, under federal regulations, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach to menus.

“We have to submit our menus to get them certified to get a little bit of extra money that is involved with it,” he said.

Under the regulations, the same calorie servings for kindergarten students must be provided to members of a school’s football team.

“I’m treating a 45-pound kindergarten student the same as an eighth-grade football player,” he said.

Because of the changes, Mr. Frego said, more students are foregoing the school lunches and bringing their own instead. That includes those who would otherwise qualify for a free or reduced lunch.

“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.

The problem isn’t just at one school, according to Mr. Frego, which means food service budgets may take a beating in the end.

“I’ve checked out a few schools. All are down in numbers. Financially we’re going to take a pretty good hit,” he said. “We just need to wait and see if this trend continues. Like any other business, we will have to evaluate and adjust where necessary.”

That, he said, may mean cutting employees, though that’s at the bottom of his list.

“I don’t want to do that. In reality, if it continues maybe we need to reevaluate the whole program,” Mr. Frego said.

The intent of the program was good, he said, but “we just need to tweak the regulations.”

But that can only be done by Congress.

“It’s a federal law. I’m really hoping with the public being involved that there will be changes made to the regulations,” he said.

Bob Beckstead and Reena Singh contributed to this report

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