Growing kids, shrinking meals

Centralia students want bigger lunches.
Wednesday, November 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

Centralia R-I school district student Aaron Schwennesen started a petition because he says he isn’t getting enough food in his school lunch and often has to buy more food to get his fill.

Aaron, 14, and some of his friends in the eighth grade at Chester Boren Middle School started the petition — which reads “Please sign here if you would like bigger lunches” — a few weeks after school began. He says the portions are smaller this year.

This is the first year Opaa Food Management is providing school meals for the district. Opaa was hired by the Centralia R-I School District to save money. Opaa provides at least three daily lunch options for students.

Royce Ridgway, also an eighth-grader, signed the petition and said he buys a second lunch almost every day. The lunch price for middle school students is $1.60, which comes out to an additional $32 over four weeks for Ridgway.

“The lunches are better, but they don’t have enough food on them,” Ridgway said.

So far about 40 students, mostly males in the eighth grade, have signed the petition. About 440 students attend Chester Boren Middle School.

Aaron plans to get additional signatures and then present the petition to Principal Phil Gooding. Gooding said this is the first negative thing he has heard about the new food program and would be willing to sit down and discuss any student concerns. He said many students don’t understand the nutritional guidelines schools are required to meet, and he said some students don’t always make healthy eating choices.

Linda Jones, director of development for Opaa, said the company bases portion sizes on federal guidelines and uses a computer program to analyze nutritional content of meals. She said some school district lunch plans look at the components of lunches — such as the number of servings of grains, vegetables and meat — but Opaa’s program looks at the nutrients. Under USDA guidelines, lunches must provide one-third of the daily recommendations for protein, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.

Jones said paying attention to nutrients and making the food from scratch help with the increasing problem of obesity among youths. The target calorie number for lunches is 664 for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and 825 for students in seventh grade through high school.

USDA guidelines provide four menu planning options to allow flexibility for food service providers. Like Opaa, the Columbia School District uses nutrient standard menu planning, often called “NuMenus.” Pat Brooks, the food service director in Columbia, said it allows for more accurate nutrition analysis and more variety in menus.

Springfield Grocer Co. previously provided menu and nutritional services to the Centralia R-I District. The company declined to comment on why its portion sizes might be different.

Patt Olsen, a school board member in Centralia, said there has been some concern over meal sizes but few complaints about quality. She said some elementary students may be eating more off their plates because of the higher quality.

But Olsen also said the high school cafeteria has had some problems running out of food before all students have eaten.

Centralia High School sophomore Suzanne Hedberg said students at the high school often buy more food, which can be expensive. She said some of her male friends might buy two or three hamburgers.

“Overall portions, especially for high school students, it stinks,” she said.

She said there are days where she would like a larger portion, often depending on how hungry she is.

Jones said there is often an adjustment period when school districts switch food service providers. Jones said Centralia is over its projected participation in the lunch program.

“The transition has been remarkable,” she said.

Olsen said the school board will likely revisit the issue and try to address concerns. As a parent, Olsen said she would like to see more vegetable options. She said many kids don’t eat salad, which is often the only vegetable option.

“I don’t want to see the school district making money because kids aren’t eating the food,” she said.

The Southern Boone County R-I District also contracted with Opaa starting this year. Kathy Diederich, director of food services in the district, said the portions are a little smaller, but she has had few complaints. She said she has worked to solve any problems that come up, such as training the staff to work with the new program.

“I am very fortunate,” she said. “Southern Boone has been awesome.”

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