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Dedham

New school lunches get poor reviews

Schools see more wasted food, less money as nutrition rules take effect

Lydia Baker, 15,  chooses salad as a vegetable item at the Dedham High School cafeteria, while Juliette Alger, 18, waits her turn.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston globe

Lydia Baker, 15, chooses salad as a vegetable item at the Dedham High School cafeteria, while Juliette Alger, 18, waits her turn.

Conor Curran said chocolate chip cookies used to be among the most popular snacks at Dedham High School.

But Curran and his friends agreed that the ones available this year, made with whole grain as required by the state’s new school nutrition law, are among the worst items the school offers.

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“We once lived in a golden age of cookies; now we’re suffering through a dystopian world,” said Curran, a senior. “It was the rise and fall of cookies.”

Cookies are just the tip of the iceberg. Though officials say that students will eventually adjust to their new choices, school budgets have taken a hit because of lost revenue from snack items such as cookies and added expenses resulting from the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which regulates school lunches.

The state and federal laws took effect last fall, and officials are projecting a $58,000 deficit for the Dedham food service department this school year. In April, the School Committee approved price hikes for school lunches throughout the district. At the high school, the price will rise to $3.50 from $2.75.

The federal law aims to bring more nutritious food into public schools to attack both childhood obesity and hunger. The Massachusetts law, meanwhile, covers foods that aren’t on the lunch plate, such as a la carte items, snacks from vending machines, and concession stands. Overall, the laws require a wider selection of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and a reduction in calories, sodium, and trans fats.

Now, districts across the Commonwealth are feeling the effects. Dedham Food Service Director Jeanne Johnson put together a list of 25 nearby districts, including Canton, Needham, Norwood, and Stoughton, that also are losing money.

Districts that have been the most successful with the new lunch regulations started early, according to Kathleen Millett, executive director of the Office of Nutrition, Health, and Safety in the state education department.

She said districts such as Somerville and Lawrence have been working to meet the regulations since the HealthierUS School Challenge, which began in 2010, and felt less of a financial impact when the regulations were implemented this year, Millett said.

Around the country, the average daily participation in school lunch as of February had dropped about 3 percent in the past year, according to statistics from the US Department of Agriculture.

On the lunch trays in Dedham, federal regulations have resulted in smaller portions. Instead of the six-inch subs the cafeteria used to offer, four-inch sandwiches with less meat and cheese are served.

Sean Birchall, a senior, said he usually buys two lunches to compensate.

“I’m starving every day,” Birchall said. “I play three sports and I’m dying.”

Unlike last year, when fruit and vegetable items were optional, students are now required to take a fruit and a vegetable item. Many put them on their plates in the lunch line, then slide them into the trash untouched at the end of the period.

That is unfortunate, said Johnson, because the cost of providing those vegetables in 1,500 meals is about $111 per day.

And that doesn’t include the loss of revenue from students like senior Megan Gallagher, who now brings her lunch from home.

“I used to get school lunch all the time; now I just don’t because it’s a waste of money,” she said.

To save money in her budget, Johnson has resorted to buying less-desirable options at times. Fresh fruit cups used to be popular and were offered each day, but Johnson switched to less-popular canned fruits three days a week so she could afford to buy kale, cauliflower florets, and different beans and legumes that are called for by the regulations and unfamiliar to students, she said.

“I hate to see the options decline for kids who were interested in taking them just to increase options for kids who don’t want to take them,” Johnson said.

For senior Marko Onyskiv, the saving grace is the Caesar salad. But now that’s available just once a week, while other salads are offered on other days.

“They force the vegetables on us,’’ said Onyskiv, but when the Caesar is available, “everyone gets this salad.”

Johnson also laments the complexity of the federal law. Vegetables are broken up into five subgroups — dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other — with each containing specific vegetables (sweet potatoes are in the red/orange category; yams are in the starchy category).

High school students must take a half a cup of each type of vegetable per week, except for the red/orange group, of which students must take 1¼ cups, and the “other” group, which has a requirement of ¾ cup, Johnson said.

Total vegetables per week must add up to five cups, in addition to the mandated five cups of fruit, according to Johnson.

In addition, high school students must have 10 to 12 ounces of grains per week and the same amount of meat or meat alternative, she said. The amounts are different for middle school and elementary school students.

“I describe it as a jigsaw puzzle of food,” Johnson said.

To get the amounts correct, Johnson sometimes told her staff to cut off portions of wraps because the full wrap would exceed the maximum grain or protein standards.

In December, the grain and protein maximums were temporarily lifted, meaning sandwiches no longer had to be cut, but the standards may be reinstated in the 2014-2015 school year, according to Millett.

Moreover, there are fewer snacks and drinks that students can buy this year, Johnson said.

These were some of the items students lamented losing most.

“When we were freshmen, they sold lemonade and Coke, but they got rid of that,” said senior Elizabeth Wadman. “They used to have ice cream.”

Johnson came before the School Committee in April to request price increases to make up for the losses. The increases were unanimously approved, and the new laws came under some criticism.

“I’m opposed to what I view as excessive regulation,” committee member Tom Ryan said before the vote. “I didn’t think what we were serving the children before was so catastrophic to their well-being.”

Fellow committee member Jennifer Barsamian said last week that the time spent at school makes up a small portion of a student’s day.

“I’m glad they are trying to make the school lunches healthier and expose kids to different foods and vegetables, but I agree with what Tom Ryan was saying that night,” Barsamian said. “Schools are not making our kids obese.”

Instead of regulating lunches, Barsamian said, there should be more recess and gym.

Barsamian also said her children, a first-grader and a fourth-grader in the Dedham Public Schools, are adapting to some of the changes.

“They’ve been upset about the mac and cheese with broccoli inside of it — they use that example always — but they’ve come to like the bean and rice burrito, which they were saying ‘gross’ to earlier in the year,” Barsamian said.

As Dedham’s food service director for 13 years, Johnson said she knows from experience which items have been popular and which have not. Her staff is learning how to work with the new regulations.

“I believe the kids are resilient and they will adapt to the new options — every year they become more familiar with kale and corn salad and pea salad and bean salad,” Johnson said. “They will get closer to what we are offering, and we’ll get closer to what they want, and we’ll meet in the middle.”

That meeting may take a while. Asked if they liked any of the new foods, senior Brittney Almeida and her friends reflected before answering.

“The sugar cookies are good,” she said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at eisen.globe@­gmail.com.
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