Santo Domingo, left, and Isabella Fernandz eat salads
during lunch at Sunset Park Elementary School in
Miami, Florida, in 2012. The salad bar was introduced
at the school to promote healthy eating habits.
— Around him, many kids in the Sunset Park Elementary
cafeteria in South Miami-Dade, Fla., were gingerly nibbling
at fresh vegetables from the new salad bar, encouraged by
hovering parent volunteers and teachers. Manuel Rodriguez,
6, had his eyes on something else.
plastic container, brought from home, contained a thick
square of chocolate cake with a layer of white frosting. As
he dug into the cake, he was asked if that was all he had
for lunch. He shook his head somberly, pointing to a
Pedialyte nutrition drink.
one in three American children considered overweight or
obese — and the trend dangerously upward — the federal
government has launched a new campaign this school year to
strengthen nutritional requirements for school lunches.
move has been strongly championed by the White House,
particularly first lady Michelle Obama, and it has sparked a
backlash. In the politicization of nutrition, Republican
stalwart Sarah Palin has defiantly served cookies to
children. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh blames
the Obamas for destroying Twinkies, while the National
Association to Advance Fat Acceptance persuaded Disney World
to close down an anti-obesity exhibit.
case of school laws, the new standards emphasize fresh
fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk while
limiting caloric intake.
response, like a serving of succotash, has been mixed.
students were dismayed, at least initially. A poll taken by
the Coral Gables High newspaper last fall found that 59
percent didn’t like the new regulations. Editor Ali Stack
said that "students are now used to the food," but
miss Papa John’s pizza. Overall, she said, attitudes about
cafeteria offerings had not changed: "Gross"
before and "gross" now.
Rodriguez, editor of the Hialeah High newspaper, said most
students "still did not like the new standards."
They got used to it, she said, but most still throw out the
Parham, nutrition director for Miami-Dade schools, said the
tales of more waste aren’t supported by reports from field
offices. In fact, she said increased numbers of elementary
and middle school kids are eating cafeteria lunches this
year, while high school participation remains about the
same. Broward schools also report no waste increase.
larger question is how much a school — or any institution
outside the home — can alter eating patterns that many
experts believe are deeply ingrained, starting from the
earliest years. Many obesity experts believe changing those
habits will take decades. "Note that it took 50 years
of anti-tobacco campaigns to lower smoking rates from 50
percent of the population to 20 percent," said James
Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition in
no question that schools can’t fix everything," said
Roland Sturm, a senior economist specializing in obesity
issues at the California-based RAND Corp. Parents’
influence remains "hugely important," he said, but
"the school environment is an important norm-setter for
most public school kids in Miami-Dade on free or
reduced-lunch programs, and many also eating breakfast, the
influence of school menu changes may be bigger than in many
places. Still, Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami
nutrition expert, said improving student diets will require
"a combined effort to tackle this devastating problem,
a real partnership between home and school."
Obama administration has campaigned to reduce the nation’s
fat, which has been growing at an alarming rate. The
percentage of kids aged 6-11 who are obese has more than
doubled in the past three decades, according to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese adolescents aged
12-19 have more than tripled. Extra pounds mean extra health
problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, adding expense
to an industry that already swallows 20 percent of the
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required schools to limit
lunches to no more than 650 calories for elementary kids,
700 for middle schoolers and 850 for high schoolers.
Students must be offered a vegetable, a fruit, a low-fat or
non-fat milk, a protein and a grain. They must pick at least
three, one of which must be a vegetable or a fruit. A
student also could satisfy the fruit or veggie requirement
by choosing a juice without added sugar.
not trying to create waste," said Olga Botero,
Miami-Dade schools executive director of food and nutrition.
the standards kicked in last fall, there were a number of
reports of students rebelling at being forced to eat
vegetables. The New York Times found hundreds of kids in a
Wisconsin school boycotting the cafeteria and students in a
small town in western Kansas creating a parody video. (In
it, athletes keel over in the gym for lack of nourishment
and kids stash bags of chips in their lockers to keep from
starving.) Even Comedy Central’s "The Daily
Show" got into the act, showing a New York school waste
can overflowing with vegetables.
Florida school nutrition experts say objections were more
muted here because there wasn’t an overnight switch from
junk to healthy foods.
been ahead of this," said Parham, Miami-Dade’s
nutrition director. "We took off hot dogs last year. It’s
been quite a while since we served corn dogs. We started
whole wheat toast ahead of the requirements." Deep
fryers are gone, and so are vending machine sodas.
Moppert, manager of Broward, Fla.’s nutrition education,
said schools there ditched fryers in the 1990s and have
offered fresh fruits — bananas, apples and such — for a
decade. "It’s just that now they’re required."
She said she’s heard few negative comments.
Cypress Bay in Weston, Fla., student journalist Nicole Moshe
said her school has "a large amount of students who are
very health conscious" and love the fresh fruits and
vegetables. She did a survey on the school’s food court
and found the salad line was as long as those for pizza and
said "very little" of the fruits and salads are
thrown out. "It comes down to the individual student.
Those who are more health conscious are going to make
county has its own regulations in addition to the federal
standards. Broward allows some vendors’ products, like
pizza, to be sold in some cafeterias, while Miami-Dade no
longer permits outside offerings like pizza because
companies can’t promise to meet healthy guidelines. This
year, Miami-Dade also eliminated junk food from vending
machines — much to some students’ consternation —
while Broward still allows some items, like whole grain
want my Pop-Tarts!" lamented junior Hadiya Trowell at
Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High in North Miami, Fla., as she
finished a lunch of brown rice, beef strips and mixed
Mourning vending machines used to be filled with Pop-Tarts
and such. Now they’re all fresh food — tuna-salad
sandwiches and parfait yogurts.
Herald reporter and photographer visited Mourning High, kids
were in a rush to get their food and eat it during the
30-minute lunch break. For fruits and vegetables, students
could pick from whole apples, a box of celery and carrot
sticks, hot mixed vegetables, packaged apple slices,
strawberry yogurt and several kinds of juices.
patterns varied widely. At one freshmen table, Aubyn Roche
had cleaned her plastic plate, including vegetables, while
across from her Ariana Aviles hadn’t touched her
vegetables. "I don’t like them," she said
Janvier, a freshman, had chosen a package of apple slices,
which remained unopened on his plate after he had finished
the rest of the meal. When a reporter asked him if he was
going to eat the slices, he said, "Yes!" His buddy
Kenneth Gratereaux snorted. "No he’s not."
Later, as Janvier left the cafeteria, he said he’d eaten
"a little" of the apple slices.
end of the first lunch shift, the Mourning waste bins
contained some vegetables and rice among the plastic dishes,
but not a lot.
Landesman, a Mourning student journalist, emailed:
"From what I see people who buy school lunch will eat
the main part of the meal like the chicken or tacos or rice,
but they won’t eat the fruit and vegetables, which doesn’t
look as appealing."
the school year has gone on, she wrote, "I don’t
really hear people complaining about it too much anymore ….When
lunch is over there are dozens of trays left on the tables
that have some part of the meal that was left uneaten.
Cookies are 50 cents each and they’re probably the most
purchased food the cafeteria sells."
nutrition in schools can be a tricky matter. Sturm, the RAND
obesity expert, warned that schools can send mixed messages
if, for example, they’re "using candy or cookies for
reward and running for punishment."
notes that healthier foods alone won’t produce thinner
kids. Giving kids better nutritional options is a good step,
he said, but "don’t expect that this magically
Florida schools appear to understand that. Miami-Dade has
several innovative programs encouraging exercise, even for
high school students who don’t take regular physical
education classes. There’s also a program with Miami-Dade
Parks and Recreation, promoting after-school exercise
programs with healthy snacks — an alternative to flopping
on the couch at home and snacking on junk foods while
everyone endorses exercise, the value of salad bars remains
schools haven’t used salad bars for the past few years
because "it’s tough to control contamination,"
said Moppert, the nutrition manager. "And we had a lot
of waste." Broward now serves salads in clear plastic
containers. In Miami-Dade, salad bars are permitted in
schools, when there are enough staff members to control the
area. said Parham.
year, Publix and Produce for Kids, a nonprofit group, have
donated 17 salad bars to Miami-Dade schools, including
Sunset Park Elementary, where the kids point to the items
they want behind a sneeze screen and a cafeteria worker
spoons the desired items into a bowl.
beginning of the school year, "we had hardly any
kids" using the salad bar, said Principal Sara Martin.
Then she staged a "tasting day" in which each
student was given six little paper cups to sample vegetables
and fruits they had never tried before. "They tried it
and loved it." And they liked that they could control
which items went into the salad. About 250 of the school’s
650 students now regularly use the salad bar, Martin said.
you start with kindergartners and first graders," said
Rarback, the UM nutritionist, "then they’re going to
be more familiar with fruits and vegetables by the time they’re
in 11th and 12th grades. I think this process is going to
evolve over time."