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Are Federal Calorie Limits Leaving Kids Hungry?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and a little savvy advice.

Today, we're talking about a controversy over school lunches. Starting this school year, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires most public schools to serve healthier, lower calorie meals to students. There are 31 million American kids who eat school lunches. Some of them are not happy with the changes in the menus, and that includes students at Wallace County High School in Kansas, who came up with a song and a video to protest.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tonight, we are hungry. Set the policy on fire. It can burn brighter than the sun. Tonight...

HEADLEE: That is "We Are Hungry," which is a parody of the song, "We Are Young," by the band, fun. The video shows kids actually passing out, supposedly from hunger, while they're in class and then hoarding food in their lockers. The students obviously had a lot of fun making the video, but did they also make a valid point? Are the new school lunches a healthy improvement or are they just depriving growing kids?

Joining us to talk about it, NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey. She contributes to NPR's food blog, TheSalt, and has been honored for her reporting on nutrition. She's the mom of three. Laura Fuentes is a mother of three. She's the CEO and chief mom of MOMables, a company that shows parents how to make fresh, healthy meals for kids, and she also writes for the Latino web community, Mamiverse. Julie Gunlock is the director of the Women for Food Freedom Project at the independent women's forum, also mother of three. And Dr. Leslie R. Walker. She's the chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital and the mother of one.

Ladies, welcome.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi. It's great to be here.



HEADLEE: Allison, set the table for us, if you would. You've been reporting on these changes in the school lunches. What foods are eliminated? What's diminished? What exactly are the rules?

AUBREY: OK. Well, basically, I think the way to think about it is that - less salt and fat, more whole grains, more fruit, more veggies and low fat dairy. So, if you ask my 9-year-old what is the big difference, he said, oh, Mom, it's exactly the same food. It just means that, when you get to the end of the line, if you don't have a vegetable on your tray now, they say, hey, you have to have a vegetable.


AUBREY: And, actually, the standards call for two vegetables, two servings of fruit and vegetables on the tray.

HEADLEE: All right. So Dr. Leslie Walker, many of these high school students are complaining. Well, some of them, at least, say that they need more than 850 calories. The limit on these lunches is supposed to be 850 calories. They say, especially if they're involved in sports, it's not enough to keep them satisfied. Can you give us an idea of exactly what would be the ideal lunch, I guess, for your average teenager? How many calories do they need?

LESLIE R. WALKER: Really, 850 calories is more than enough calories for a lunch. I mean, the other side of it is, if you have a kid who - let's say he's 14 to 18. The recommended amount of calories in a day might be 2,200 calories. If they actually really do have a lot of athletics, that might be another 400 calories. If you divide that out, that would be about 800 calories for lunch.

The problem is you don't really want to overload calories and have them sleepy the next half of school. I mean, you know, snacks are important in between lunch and breakfast.

HEADLEE: Well, Julie Gunlock, you actually have a problem with the policy, though. I mean, you say that you don't think the guidelines are a good idea. Why do you say that?

GUNLOCK: Well, look, you know, I think the kids aren't eating all 850 calories. I think the food that's being put on the trays doesn't taste as good and so a lot of it - there have been reports of massive waste. Kids are simply throwing the food away, so they're actually...

HEADLEE: They're throwing out the vegetables.

GUNLOCK: They're throwing out the - and the thing is, you know, we heard that there's less fat and less salt and that means, you know, when - you know, I have three young children and the way I get them to eat vegetables is I saturate them with butter or sometimes I put a little bit of cheese on them or - and I put salt on them and that makes them taste good. I mean, broccoli tastes better with butter and salt, particularly to a child. And so I think that we need to understand that a lot of the vegetables that are being placed on the trays don't have butter and salt because - in an effort to cut the fat and salt out of them.

HEADLEE: You know, the pizzas at school lunches don't taste that great, either, but since we're talking about taste, we should take this to Laura Fuentes, 'cause this is exactly what your company does. You try to help parents serve healthy food that tastes good.

FUENTES: We do. We take a look at what people's kids typically would eat and we create a balanced lunch with healthy and fresh ingredients that accommodates for that child's tastes, dietary needs and age appropriate or, you know, in portion size and we leave it up to the parent to create that for the child. So we encourage and educate parents to make lunch fresh at home.

HEADLEE: Laura, have you tasted the vegetables that Julie was just talking about? Do they taste terrible?

FUENTES: They do. Where I live, they do.

HEADLEE: So maybe the problem isn't how many calories there are. Maybe Julie's pointed out the real problem here that, you know, the lunches are healthy, but they taste bad.

FUENTES: Right. I think the problem is not calories and I think the quality of the ingredients is the problem in school lunches.

HEADLEE: All right. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is our weekly parenting conversation. We're talking about the new nutrition rules for school lunches.

Our guests are, you just heard Laura Fuentes. She is a Mamiverse writer and CEO of the MOMables meal company. Also Julie Gunlock, director of the Women for Food Freedom Project at the Independent Women's Forum, NPR correspondent and food writer Allison Aubrey, and Dr. Lesley Walker, the chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital.

But doctor, let's get back to this possibility that the meals are leaving kids hungry. I mean I know that it's difficult if I'm not home actually forcing my kids to eat breakfast in the morning they will leave without eating anything, which means by the time they get to lunch they are ravenous. Is that perhaps, do you think, part of the problem?

WALKER: Yeah. I think that one of the things that we've lost with the schools and, you know, getting closer to trying to get more test scores up is the breaks that kids should have. You know, you have breakfast, you have a lunch - a snack meal, you have lunch, you have another snack. That's how we are really supposed to eat, five meals a day, you know, three bigger meals, two snacks. That's how we're meant to eat so that we don't get hungry. We skip some of those we're going to get hungry. We might, we won't be starving but, you know, we will be hungry, and that can definitely detract from kids ability to do well in school.

HEADLEE: All right. So Allison, what are you hearing from the administrators? I mean, we - there's a lot in our discussion going on here; too few calories, maybe. Administrators, or they just don't know how to make them taste good?

AUBREY: Yeah. You know, honestly, there is a lot of variability. It's hard to have this conversation and not acknowledge right off the bat that you have school districts, say, Boulder - in Boulder, Colorado - where the public schools are serving up these phenomenal meals, you know, crafted by trained chefs, right? You have a lot of variability and within that, I mean, we can't all - I think it's sort of a rite of passage to complain about school food and say, hey, if you don't put a bunch of, you know, butter and salt on it it's going to be horrible and, look, we're setting our kids up not eat these vegetables. But at the same time, I think what we have to be aware of here is that the school food administrators have a lot of discretion here on how to prepare the food. And they know they can't just serve plain broccoli with nothing on it.

I mean I've eaten at quite a few schools on my reporting on this topic and in my own kids schools and there are things that, you know, you would kind of saying no, this is not something I would serve or make it home, but then there are other places in schools where they're serving up some really good stuff. And the School Nutrition Association basically says this. Look, there are some squeaky wheels out there, we are hearing some complaints, this is a lot for some schools to take on at once, you know. If all of a sudden you have to be serving two fruits and vegetables or two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and that's a big change for you, that might mean, you know, bringing more trucks in, having more people in your preparation line. These are issues that the schools are dealing with as well.

When it comes to our kids actually eating it, I think in the beginning we can expect that kids are going to throw things away because we all take time to adapt to change, right?


AUBREY: But the School Nutrition Association, I was just on the phone with them this morning, tells me that they're hearing from their administrator in Rockdale County, Georgia, her participation rate is up, meaning more kids are buying the school lunch. I have a picture here of the lunch that she served last Friday. It meets these calorie ranges - got a piece of chicken that looks like breast, a roll, an apple, some low-fat milk, a small thing of carrots and broccoli and a small potato. And, you know, I can't taste this obviously, but it looks like, just looking at it looks like something that's going to make me hungry.

HEADLEE: I can tell you, that's a lot of food.

AUBREY: And that's a lot of food. I can't imagine being hungry after eating this. Back to the point of what are these School Nutrition Association directors saying. They say participation rates are up in Cincinnati, St. Paul is, you know, not reporting any problems with implementation. So I think we hear a lot about the places where there are the squeaky wheels or the teenagers who are sort of, you know, having fun...


AUBREY: ...making fun of school lunch, which is, as I say, a rite of passage. I mean, don't you guys remember making fun of school lunch?

HEADLEE: If you're paying attention, just hear Jamie Oliver having a fit, you know, working the bad taste of school lunches. But let me bring this back to you, Julie, because I read in some of your things where you did, you had a problem with the 850 calorie limit. And, you know, one of our producers checked out the McDonald's menu, for example.

GUNLOCK: Right. Yeah.

HEADLEE: You can get a double cheeseburger and medium fries...


HEADLEE: ...for 850 calories. So...

GUNLOCK: Yeah. I have a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution and Washington coming in and telling school administrators and frankly, lunch ladies, really telling them how to prepare the meals and what can be - there is a USDA list of approved vegetables and fruits and I, that's sort of what I have a...

HEADLEE: You don't think that if a government entity is providing the meal, that they should have guidelines on how to...

GUNLOCK: I think the state should have and the locals should have more control and determine, because there are regions in this country and certain kids like certain kinds of foods and other kids like other kinds of foods. And I think giving more power to the local school would probably be a better solution. But I think one thing that we're getting away from is focusing, when we focus so much on the school lunch program and is it healthy and is it providing kids healthy food, we sometimes forget that, you know, we need to encourage parents to take over the role and we need to encourage parents being more involved in their children's nutrition because study after study shows that the best way to deal with and reduce childhood obesity is for parents to get more involved in their children's nutrition.

HEADLEE: Right. Right.

GUNLOCK: It's a key factor. In so many times in these debates and when I'm talking about these issues, it's left. And I'm so happy to see that, you know, Laura Fuentes is involved in really helping parents realize that this is an easy task.


GUNLOCK: Something that they can do, they can accomplish.

HEADLEE: But let me take this to our doctor, Dr. Lesley Walker, chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. What's your response to what Julie's talking about? Do you think that parents know how to create healthy meals and needs, just needs support to do it? Or is there some confusion about what constitutes a reasonable limit of calories and balance on the plate?

WALKER: Well, I work with a lot of families who are dealing with both extremes, not eating enough and obesity. And, you know, people in general may know what's important to eat but, you know, adult people don't eat well. And so their habits become their kid's habits. And, you know, the other thing I would say about that is 68 percent of the kids that are eating these - you know, 31 million kids are eating the, a national school lunch meal and 68 to 78 percent of those kids don't have, they qualify for free and reduced lunch. So whether or not the mom knows how to eat well and can prepare something well, she may not have access, she may not have money to get the food, and these meals are, you know, a lot of kids, this is their meal, this is their main meal of the day. And I think that it's really important that these kids get a good balance.

And, you know, state-by-state, there's no difference in what nutrition a kid needs. You know, we're human beings, all of us need the same nutrition. What a person likes or doesn't like may change by, you know, culture, family, geography, but within vegetables, fruits, protein, we all need the same things.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go back to Laura Fuentes, who is the CEO and chief for the kids meal company MOMables, 'cause, you know, Laura, what we're talking about is the fact that in the end we really don't have control over what our kids eat. I can pack the healthiest lunch possible for my kid, or my school could be serving a very healthy lunch and my son could just throw it into the garbage anyway. How do you get your kids to eat that broccoli and eat those carrots instead of tossing it out?

FUENTES: So I think getting your kids involved in lunch packing is really important. You know, just by having a plan and doing it together at night before, you know, as you lay out the clothes for the next day and you prepare for your team for the morning, doing lunch packing together is really important. Getting your kids involved in the grocery shopping, meal planning for dinner and snacks, and just really being an example for your kids. I think what happens at home the children mimic that, they grow up observing that. They're sponges. And I think it's - I really believe that the parent's responsibility to educate their kids at home so when they go outside of the home they can make healthier choices. And I mean, that I know 68 percent of those 31 million kids depend on school lunches, but that leaves 12 million kids out there that the parents have options to put together their own kid's school food and help them.

HEADLEE: Right. All right. So that's a vote from Laura Fuentes for parents taking responsibility. We heard Julie Gunlock say the same thing. We heard Dr. Lesley Walker say the same thing. Allison Aubrey, what do you think here?

AUBREY: What I think is that it's everyone's responsibility. You know, you talked about socially norming kids to what is an appropriate size meal, what's an appropriate thing to put in the lunch box. I think parents play a role in that, but given that I think it's about 73 percent of children, ages K through 5th grade are participating in this national school lunch program among the schools that participate. That's a lot, a lot, a lot of kids. So if they're getting socially normed at school to say, hey, here's what a reasonable meal looks like. It's got fruits and vegetables in it, it's a reasonable amount of calories. And then as you say, lots of kids are bringing, you know, their lunchboxes in with lunches made at home and parents at home are doing the same thing, well, then how can that be a bad thing if they're sort of everyone working together?

HEADLEE: All right. But I mean, Allison, we should remind people that the whole impetus behind program is the obesity problem in the United States. Part of that is because kids sometimes at school, no matter how healthy the lunches, can still go to a vending machine and get whatever they want out of the vending machine.

AUBREY: Well, actually that's not true. I mean, it depends on what state you're in. So the federal government actually is in the process of coming up with new regulations for what they call competitive food. So those are the things sold on school premises in vending machines or after school. Currently, there are no federal guidelines in place for that. As I say, they're in the works. But, state-by-state a lot of regulations and controls have been put in place.

For instance, in California, I did a story a little while ago about how in that state in 2009, they set a whole bunch of restrictions for the kinds of food that can be sold on school premises. They decided to really limit the sale of snack foods and sodas, and so you found that recent study now has found that kids in the Golden State are eating about 150 fewer calories a day.

HEADLEE: And that adds up to a lot.

AUBREY: And so that over time, I mean, that's 150 calories is what you'd find in a 12 ounce soda, for instance.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that was NPR's award-winning health and food correspondent, Allison Aubrey, one of our moms. We also had in our Washington studios Julie Gunlock, director of the Women for Food Freedom Project at the Independent Women's Forum. Laura Fuentes is the CEO and chief mom for the kids meal company MOMables. She was with us from WWNO in New Orleans. Dr. Leslie Walker, is the chief of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. And she joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Thanks to all the moms.

AUBREY: Thanks for having us.

FUENTES: Thanks.

WALKER: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin will talk with you more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.