School may be out for summer, but school lunches remain a hot topic.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK), signed into law by President Obama in 2010, was initally welcomed. An important companion to Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity initiative and her “Let’s Move” campaign, the bill strengthened nutrition requirements and provided for free school lunch programs.
But now everyone from students to lunch ladies to food companies is complaining, saying that changes in menus and portion sizes are causing students to bring their own lunches or to not eat at all. HHFK is being challenged in Congress by the Republican-backed School Nutrition Association, and on May 29, the House Appropriations Committee voted 31-18 to advance a spending bill that would allow schools to waive the new nutrition guidelines for a year.
In the face of this opposition, the First Lady is fighting back, calling Republican attempts to quash HHFK “unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the teenage Twitterverse has been vocal, sending out photos of meager-looking lunch fare with messages like “Thanks Michelle Obama. I’m going to be so full after this $2.30 lunch.”
New nutritional standards have been added to the bill since its enactment nearly four years ago. These standards include additional funding for school lunches, resources that allow schools to get fresh produce from local farms, and an increase in the number of students who are eligible for school lunch programs.
Reports vary on how the bill has affected the Tampa Bay area.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, a month after the nutrition rules took effect in Sept. 2012, students at Zephyrhills High School in Pasco County claimed that the lunch portions were too small and resorted to purchasing snacks from vending machines to satisfy their hunger.
In Sept. 2013, schools all across Pinellas County received free breakfast and lunch through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Community Eligibility Option program. Free dinner was also available at three YMCA of the Suncoast after-school programs, according to the St. Petersburg Tribune.
The increase in federal funding also allowed schools to offer a larger variety of healthy foods. Some schools created a fresh food bar, from which students could choose fruits, vegetables and other food options.
“We introduced a salad/sandwich bar last year and it has really taken off,” Sickles High School Principal Jake Russell said. “It is not self-serve, but it is made to order and the students really like the options it provides.”
Hillsborough County Public Schools have been trying to improve both the quality and variety of school lunches.
“I eat our school lunches and believe the quality of food in my experience at our school has increased as a result of Mrs. Obama’s initiative,” Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School Principal Kristine Bennett said. “While we cannot please everyone, the food meets the nutrition requirements.”
The Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services (HCSNS) hosts a Cook It Up competition, in which students from different grade levels submit healthy recipes for the school menu. HCSNS also has a Twitter page to tout the variety of meal choices offered in the county.
But students do complain.
“I honestly feel like… the food is just as unhealthy as it was before, but now there are just fewer choices,” St. Petersburg High School junior Michelle Lynch said. “The healthiest options available to us are some bruised apples or questionable oranges, but for the most part the food is still fried and greasy.”
Middle school students have also been affected by the bill.
“My friends and I would rather go a whole day without eating than eat the school lunch,” said Stefan Mason, a student at Thurgood Marshall Middle School. “The food looks old and they say it’s healthy, but I don’t know if I believe that.”
Some students sympathize with Michelle Obama’s goals, if not the results.
“It seems incredibly difficult to improve the quality of lunches when the products cost more than before, but the budget remains the same,” St. Petersburg High School sophomore Taylor Mason said. “I think without a massive budget, it won’t be possible to produce school lunches that are genuinely nutritious and appetizing.”
“I think it’s great that Michelle has taken the initiative to better the school lunches because their quality had definitely been at a low point,” said St. Petersburg High School senior Jamal Waked. “On the other hand, not much can be done to change the quality without changing the funding. To be able to make a significant difference, there would have to be an ample amount of spending put into the quality of food.”
Zebrina Edgerton-Maloy is a Creative Loafing summer intern. She is a rising senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.