In some area schools, fruits and vegetables are piled high in cafeteria trash cans.
Students complain about a lack of salt shakers on cafeteria tables and portion sizes that leave them hungry later in the day.
The problem: whether students want to buy in on the federal regulations governing the school lunch program.
Photo for the Mirror by Gregg Doll
Jude Duman, Noah Byich and Jordan Hayward go through the lunch line at Central Cambria High School.
Under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, students are required to take at least one fruit or vegetable before paying for their food.
Calorie and sodium restrictions have forced food service providers to reinvent their menus, cutting french fries and other foods from students' daily options.
For many area school districts, the meals have left a bad taste in some students' and parents' mouths.
"They're not getting enough food," Carol Keim, secretary at Holy Name School in Ebensburg, said. "They're hungry. They don't like it changed so quickly. Most of these kids haven't had these foods in their diet."
Food service providers said they've heard the complaints and have similar doubts about the program.
To help satisfy area school board members craving more information, Joe Geisweidt, regional manager at The Nutrition Group, visited districts his company serves at the start of the school year.
The company serves multiple western Pennsylvania schools, including Central Cambria, Bellwood-Antis, Cambria Heights, Glendale, Tyrone Area and Penn Cambria school districts
With a rolling cart of sample platters on hand, Geisweidt told Central Cambria school board members in Ebensburg the same message he reiterated in other school districts across the area - that little could be done on behalf of Nutrition Group in the face of federal guidelines.
"Our hands are tied," Geisweidt told the board.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010, was designed to improve nutrition and healthy eating habits in school children.
Championed by first lady Michelle Obama, the goal of the act was to promote healthy eating choices in school cafeterias in an effort to combat childhood obesity.
The act imposes strict limits on nutritional standards in school lunch programs. Schools enrolled in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids school lunch program are eligible for federal reimbursements on student lunches.
To qualify, districts must also offer free and reduced-price lunches for low-income families. Children in families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free school lunches, while children in families between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-cost lunches at 40 cents, according to information from Food and Nutrition Service.
Reimbursement levels vary, depending on the type of lunches served. A paid lunch nets the participating district 27 cents in reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Reduced-price lunches and free lunches earn a district $2.46 and $2.86, respectively.
But those funds come at a price - a strict set of rules each lunch program must put in place and enforce, Central Cambria Superintendent Vincent DiLeo said.
"You accept money from the federal government and you have to follow those rules," DiLeo said.
What's included, what's missing
For elementary school lunches, the act sets a maximum of 650 calories. High school lunches are limited to 850 calories.
According to the mandate, students must also take either a fruit or vegetable before they are allowed to purchase a meal. Salt shakers have also disappeared from cafeterias nationwide, per regulations on students' sodium intake.
The foods themselves have been changed to fall in line with the limited caloric content. Mandatory this year, food service providers must ensure they use 51 percent whole-grain products in half of all the foods they serve.
Nutrition groups and food service providers have been quick to adapt to the change, Geisweidt said, but many students are still frustrated with the results.
"There's not enough fat and carbs in that diet," Keim said.
Keim said her son Alex, a 16-year-old football player at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School, agrees.
"The food isn't bad, there's just not enough of it," Keim said, regarding the food after discussions with her son.
Alex - like many athletes - occasionally packs an extra lunch or snacks, which he usually eats before after-school football practice, Keim said.
School board members at Central Cambria School District also expressed concern for student athletes at a recent school board meeting.
"I want all of our children to be satisfied with their meals," board member Rose Marie Sadosky said. "I don't want to see any of them going hungry."
Board member Gayle A. Devlin, who has children in the district, agreed and asked if athletes would be eligible to receive additional meals.
Geisweidt said no special considerations can be made for any one group of students.
Despite the problems, The Nutrition Group has "done the very best they can with the regulations," Sadosky said.
"I think we're all just going to have to live with it, to be honest," she said.
Not an issue in one district
The federal guidelines came as less of a shock for students in the Hollidaysburg Area School District, spokeswoman Linda Russo said.
That's because officials began gradually transitioning their foods to more healthy varieties years ago, Russo said.
The district serves as its own independent food provider and does not rely on any outside food service management company, said Betsy Snyder, district nutritionist. The district still qualifies for reimbursements, she said.
Gradual changes helped students to adapt to the new regulations before the current school year, Snyder said.
Bread served in the district's cafeterias already contained 51 percent whole grains. Romaine and dark, leafy greens were added to regular salads, and sodium content was measured in all students' meals, Snyder said.
"We're not experiencing the same concerns [other districts] are having," Snyder said.
Questions come in
Officials at Altoona Area School District have fielded more questions about the new requirements than outright complaints, said Kathy Hazenstab, assistant to the superintendent for business.
The district sent out an information packet and sample menus to parents ahead of the current school year to inform them of the changes, Hazenstab said.
A registered dietitian from the district's food service provider, Metz Culinary Management, has routinely visited with students to present information about fresh foods and vegetables, she added.
"To me, it's all about educating the student and showing them how to make wise choices, not forcing them to make wise choices," said Don Redshaw, general manager of the Altoona district's food service program.
Despite a lack of complaints, school officials in each district are finding ways to see if students are eating - or simply taking - the fruit or vegetable portion that is mandatory under the act.
"I think, in general, it is a positive change," Snyder said, concerning the requirement. "In the past, students did not have to take a fruit or vegetable. The new regulations encourage that."
The half cup of fruits or vegetables, which rotates often, is a healthy part of students' meals, Snyder said.
While Russo said Hollidaysburg schools have not noticed any increased food waste, officials at Central Cambria noted at a recent school board meeting that many students simply toss the items into the garbage after leaving the lunch line.
That has been a common complaint heard in districts throughout Pennsylvania and across the nation that employ The Nutrition Group for their lunch programs, Geisweidt said.
Schools must provide the fruit and vegetable portions to be eligible for federal funds, Geisweidt said.
And districts must enforce the rule: They will be audited every three years to ensure compliance, and random districts throughout the country will be periodically screened to monitor compliance.
Despite the waste some districts have seen, schools and their lunch programs must enforce the requirement that each child take one of the items, Geisweidt said. What the child does with his or her item after paying for their meal - sharing with a friend or tossing it into the garbage - is entirely up to the student.
And claims of smaller portions are exaggerated, Geisweidt said. Portions have remained the same, just the types of foods that fill those platters have changed.
DiLeo said he gives The Nutrition Group a great deal of credit for the variety of the new menus. Items such as pizza remain on the menu and have been give a whole grain boost, and the vegetable and fruit selections range in variety on a daily basis.
Redshaw agrees, adding the requirements - strict as they are - have added to school lunches.
"If [students] take the full allotment of fruits and vegetables, there's more on their plate" compared to previous lunch platters, Redshaw said. Problems arise when students skip the fruits and vegetables - and opt instead to purchase extra entrees or a la carte items.
In spite of the company's efforts, the number of students enrolled in the lunch program at Central Cambria has dropped slightly, DiLeo said. That number coincides with a drop in student enrollment, he added, since the district's population dropped by about 60 students this school year.
The numbers aren't threatening the lunch program, but they show that some students and their families are seeking alternatives, he said.
At Holy Name, enrollment in the lunch program has also dropped, and some officials are worried losing their school's smaller lunch program could mean a loss of reimbursements under the program.
"It's always a possibility, absolutely," Keim said.
But like the state's seat belt law or any new change that affects people's daily routine, DiLeo said students - especially ones in younger grades - will adapt and become accustomed to the healthier food items.
"I think it's going to take time because it's a change people aren't used to," DiLeo said. "I just think that it will take time."