FAIRMONT - Changes to federal lunch guidelines have not gone unnoticed at Fairmont Area Schools, despite attempts to make the transition a smooth one.
Food service director Emily Nielsen said the shift, which began at the start of the school year, regulates maximums and minimums on products such as grains and proteins, and maximums for sodium and fat.
Fruit and veggie requirements also have changed. No longer can the two food groups be served interchangeably - students must be served both a fruit and vegetable every day. And not just any vegetable will do. Rules outline five different categories of vegetables - dark green, red and orange, legumes, starches and other - and how often each type can be served to students.
Calorie maximums of up to 650 for K-fifth-graders, 700 for sixth- through eighth-graders, and 850 for high-schoolers also have been instituted.
The guidelines are intended to improve the health and nutrition of school children by ensuring access to at least one healthy meal per day.
But serving healthy food doesn't necessarily mean students are eating healthy food.
"This is having a pretty major impact on our students," Nielsen said.
Lunch participation at the high school is down 4 percent from last year, and 2.2 percent fewer elementary students are buying hot lunches. The decrease in sales is something other districts have been seeing as well, although it is unclear locally if the guidelines are the culprit more than an increase in prices.
Nielsen said the new variety in vegetables has had hits and misses. Students thought jicama were apple sticks. Nielsen acknowledges that although kids are required to take them, they are throwing some away.
"Students are not consuming everything," she said. "But if it is on their plate, it may encourage them to try it."
The downside to not eating everything is that some students are getting hungry later, despite the fact that they are virtually unlimited in the amount of vegetables they can take.
"Students feel like they are getting smaller quantities," Nielsen said.
That is the case for Kaleb Linse, a 10th-grader at Fairmont Area. He says he definitely does not get enough to eat, but concedes being an athlete might have something to do with it. He likes the fruits and vegetables, and takes as many as he can.
"The fruit and vegetables are pretty good," he said. "It is the main meals that are disgusting."
His plan of attack in the lunch line?
"I just get as much food as possible that I like," he said.
The new requirements have made doing so a bit of a challenge.
"I was kind of skeptical about (the changes)," he said. "I thought it was nasty - I mean, whole-grain spaghetti?"
Kaleb has a brother and three sisters also attending Fairmont, and their opinions of the nutritional changes are mixed.
Paige and Hannah, in second and third grade, respectively, and Cole, in seventh grade, have few complaints. But their sixth-grade sister Bethany is so upset about the changes that she now rarely gets hot lunch. Her favorite meal from last year - Italian dunkers - had to be reformulated, and the results do not please her.
"Last year they were real bread," Bethany said. "They were really good. .. This year they are like hard hot dog buns with melted cheese."
Italian dunkers weren't the only food to see a change because of the new rules. A favorite at the high school - pizza - had to be reformulated because it had too many grains in the crust. Nielsen said that while students have complained the pizza tastes different, for the most part they have continued to eat it, even though they now have to take a fruit or vegetable along with it for it to count as fully reimbursable.
For many local schools, ensuring that students have a fully reimbursable meal is important for more than just a child's waistline. Taking guidelines seriously is a financial matter as well as a nutritional one. Nielsen said there is a 6-cent per meal incentive to meet the requirements set forth by Uncle Sam.
To qualify for the reimbursement, Nielsen needs to document that regulations were followed, which presents another challenge.
The guidelines were split into three age brackets, K-5th grade, 6-8th grade and 9-12th grade. But Fairmont only has two sites, meaning the 6-8th-graders, with different requirements, are split between two different buildings.
"There is overlap on the requirements for K-5 and 6-8," Nielsen said. "But there is no overlap for 9-12."
That means the schedules had to be re-worked so lunchroom staff can serve seventh- and eighth-graders separately from the ninth through 12th grades.
"That brought challenges to serve the meal, properly record it, and get ready for the next group," Nielsen said.
With two months of serving with the new guidelines under the school's belt, Nielsen said the cafeteria is running pretty smoothly and students are adjusting.
"We've gotten a pretty good handle on things now," she said.
The next big changes come next school year, when breakfast requirements will be addressed.
"I am really curious where we will be a year from now," Nielsen said.