Darren Doyle, Edmonson Voice
Remember back in the day when you could count on the ol' square pizza on Fridays? Pizza, tossed salad, corn and a pudding pop made for a tasty treat back then. Greasy crinkled french fries? What about the baked ham, mashed potatoes and gravy along with those awesome yeast rolls? Man, that was good stuff. Well, that was then, this is now, and things are different.
The Edmonson Voice has had several comments and suggestions from parents of Edmonson County students regarding school lunches, so we first reached out to Patrick Waddell, Superintendent of Edmonson County Schools. He pointed us to Amy Bullock, School Food Service Director, and she said there's much more to serving lunches today than there was twenty years ago. In 2010, the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" was signed into effect by President Barack Obama, and according to Bullock, it's the reason that lunches are now so different. "Are meals better now than 20 years ago? I think it's a matter of perspective," she said. "Children are more sedentary now than when we were kids, they're burning a lot less calories than we did. Some of the changes that are being made to school meals are positive changes...but sometimes sudden changes aren't accepted very well."
She also said that each school's menus are created and approved by each cafeteria manager and herself, however, those decisions are governed with very strict federal guidelines. According to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, there are certain components that must be included in each meal. As Bullock explained some of the basic requirements, I quickly began to see how difficult it would be to keep track of the required components in one meal alone, much less an entire menu. When asked if the current system is too complicated, she said: "It's not that it's too complicated, but when something becomes government regulated, it can be overdone, and here, the restrictions and guidelines are not at their best." Bullock pointed out that the intent of the regulations is to see that every child is fed with a nutritious meal everyday. However, intent is one thing and results are another. It would seem that in EC schools, the majority of students would prefer a meal of fried chicken and french fries over one featuring a baked meat "product" with assorted vegetables, but the schools are not allowed to serve anything fried. In the end, you have lots of hungry students when they arrive home because they simply don't like the choices they are given, and the schools don't control that. Bullock said that she feels like the government simply has too much control in our system.
I asked my daughters what they thought about their options. Alyssa Doyle, 9, a fourth grader at South Edmonson said "We should get to choose, not government people. We don't get to use forks, either. Everything is baked, and most of it's gross." Madison Doyle, 13, an 8th grader at ECMS says she's not a fan of baked items either. "Our chicken patties look like liquid that's been cooked and stuck into a solid. The chicken nuggets? I mean, come on...they're baked and they're soggy one day, then really hard the next. Just fry something for once." Both girls weren't aware that they had the option of asking a staff member for something else. They both felt like there wasn't enough time allowed during lunch for that.
One parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said his problem is the cost of the food for what his children actually eat. "My kids can't make substitutions. They get the lunch I pay for, won't eat 75% of what's on the tray, so they add extras of the things they'll actually eat, which I have to pay extra for, and end up paying double for a lunch that still won't fill them up."
I asked Mrs. Bullock about the photos above. She told me that the "turkey meat product" is delivered fully cooked and only needs to be reheated before serving. The above example is what happens when you try to keep the food warm for too long. She agreed that it should not have been served and has since been removed from the menu. The banana? She said bananas arrive at the schools green because they ripen quickly, sometimes too much, which causes them to be thrown away. She agreed that this particular banana should have been stored another day or two, but also noted that the student had several other fruit options and could have easily chosen something else. The photo on the right, however, was submitted by a different parent after the interview, so if this is a different food item than the one on the left, it's eerily similar to the "turkey meat product."
So what happens if a child tries to eat their meal, but won't because they just don't like how it tastes?
Bullock said that there was no actual policy on the matter but said, "I know we have great staff members and plenty of times I've seen them just try to make kids happy. I honestly believe if a student didn't like something, our staff would try to get them something else." She also discussed another regulation from the Health Act, which is a calorie limit placed on each meal. Those limits are supposed to reflect the needs of students on a national average, which obviously may not work for Edmonson County. Bullock said, "Those limits are what they are, they're nothing we can change."
We asked Mrs. Bullock point blank if she felt like the system was working in our schools. After a lengthy pause, she replied: "The federal guidelines are working to an extent, but changes need to be made. We're now being given some options as members of the Kentucky Schools Nutrition Association. The group goes to Washington and lobbies for our cause. This allows us the option to give feedback on all regulations and say what's working and what's not. Some of those things are working for us, but all in all, our control over the situation is very limited."
So, who is to blame? Who came up with this? Many seem to think that it's Michelle Obama because of her focus of the new law in her "Let's Move!" initiative. However, if you want to blame someone, you'd have to mention former Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln (D), who introduced the bill when she was Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. However, It was approved unanimously by the Senate, then passed in the House by a vote of 247 Democrats and 17 Republicans voting for it, with 4 Democrats and 153 Republicans voting against it. If you want things changed, contact Congressman Brett Guthrie, Senator Rand Paul, or Senator Mitch McConnell. You can also contact your local schools and voice your concerns to the administration. Some people are satisfied with the current menu and system. They are apparently big fans of "turkey meat product."