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Lunch Lessons: New Calorie Limits Add Healthier Items, Higher Costs to School Cafeterias

Montgomery and Prince George’s county schools serve more fruits and vegetables, but students may not be eating them.

Every day at lunch, children across Prince George’s and Montgomery counties may be facing what conventional wisdom says is one of their worst nightmares.

No, it’s not monsters hiding under their beds or behind their closet doors. It’s not zombies chasing after them, either.

It’s fruits and vegetables.

After Congress passed a nationwide law limiting the amount of calories schools are allowed to serve at lunch, schools in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties are adhering to the rules and serving up more healthy options for students.

“Before this year, each student had to select three out of five items,” said Marla Caplon, Director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services at Montgomery County public schools. “This year, the student has to take three things, but at least one of them has to be a fruit or a vegetable.”

Caplon said schools now have a greater assortment of fruit and vegetable items to encourage students to make healthier choices. They can now add zucchini, celery sticks, spinach salad, romaine salad and red pepper sticks to their trays, she said.

But some children, parents say, probably aren’t even facing the healthy little nightmares on their lunch trays in schools. They may just be throwing them away.

Gabrielle Davis has a second grade daughter in Hyattsville Elementary School and she said she focuses on teaching her daughter about healthy eating at home because she has no control over whether her daughter is throwing away the apples and celery sticks in the cafeteria during school.

“I hate to say it like this, but a lot of times I think of lunch as more of a snack for [my daughter], rather than an actual meal,” Davis said. “So I concentrate better on what she eats at home rather than what she eats here, because I know at school she's going to eat what she wants and pick what she wants rather than, you know, 'You need to eat this, this is a full meal.’”

The new Congress-mandated calorie limits are divided by age groups: grades K through 5, grades 6 through 8 and grades 9 through 12. Last year the federal government recommended that a sixth grader receive a 785-calorie lunch at school. Effective August, though, that same sixth grader has been served 700-calorie lunches.

Check out our Storify on reaction about the new calorie limits.

Joan Shorter, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Prince George’s County public schools, said the new legislation has demanded the creation of new menus. Before this school year, there was one menu for all county elementary schools and another for the middle and high schools.

“The change is we now have three different menus,” she said. “We started that this year because the calorie limits are different from elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.”

With more than one-third of Montgomery County students and nearly 60 percent of Prince George’s County students receiving free or reduced lunches, the addition of more produce to the menu has affected the budget of area schools.

Caplon said the new calorie limits have ended up costing the county an additional $700,000 for this school year alone, as they’ve even had to switch to wheat products.

“It’s definitely costing us more,” she said. “The hamburger buns in itself are five cents more each.”

Caplon said Montgomery County has not increased the price of meals for students who regularly pay the full price, though.

“We haven’t raised prices from last year to this year,” Caplon said. “Our goal is to increase accessibility.”

The story is the same in Prince George’s County, too.

“We are spending more since grain products are more expensive,” Shorter said. “But it’s not just grains. We’re also spending more on fruits and vegetables, too.”

But that money might be going to waste.

Although both Shorter and Caplon said they think their students are eating the new, healthier options, students say they usually prefer the unhealthier choices.

“I see a lot of students go to the vending machines just eat a bag of chips and a soda or apple juice and that’s about it,” said 17-year-old Wheaton High School student Janet Vasquez. “It’s not healthy at all but they taste a lot better than cafeteria food.”

Choosing the vending machine, though, may be contributing to the state obesity levels. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, in 2012, more than 35 percent of Maryland children between the ages of 10 and 17 are overweight or obese.

Those numbers can also be attributed to a lack of education, said Viviana Lindo, the Director of Community Education at ECO City Farms in Hyattsville.

“We have unhealthy kids, [who don't] know what they are eating or putting into their mouths,” Lindo said. “If we are going to have unhealthy kids, how can you expect them to have minds that are healthy and they can be active?”

To combat those obesity numbers and start educating young children as Lindo suggests, some local schools have planted gardens or participate in urban farming. Some schools allow students to have an open-campus lunch so students have more appealing options.

See what other area schools are doing to promote healthy eating by reading our Lunch Lessons series.

Linda Poon, Courtney Connely, Yaman Shalabi and Mary Tablante contributed to this article.

TELL US: Do you think schools are doing enough to promote healthy eating?

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