Student grumbling about more fruits and vegetables on their cafeteria trays has become a welcome rallying cry for Republicans in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
In the wake of high school demonstrations against a U.S. law that for the first time sets calorie caps on meals served in public schools and encourages healthier menus, conservative politicians have embraced the student movement. U.S. Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, introduced legislation to repeal the calorie limits with Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, who visited with students behind a YouTube parody of school meals.
Meantime, Tea Party websites are buzzing with comments deriding the cap on school lunch calories as an example of the type of federal government encroachment that would be curbed by Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. The Tea Party wants to cut taxes, reduce spending and limit the U.S. government’s authority.
“It’s certainly taken a life of its own and it’s unusual for an issue like this to get this kind of attention in an election year,” Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said in an interview. “It fits into the story line of Obama overreaching. It could have an impact in terms of further mobilizing Tea Party and conservatives.”
Changes to the U.S. school lunch program that went into effect this year were championed by first lady Michelle Obama and added more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat options to menus. The changes have led to lunch boycotts, Twitter campaigns and YouTube parodies that included students burning a copy of the federal school-lunch policy.
At Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas, students filmed a “We Are Hungry” music video -- set to the tune of the band Fun’s “We Are Young” -- that shows students mocking the new diet by pretending to collapse from starvation.
“I’m a farmer and rancher and I need protein and grains to make it to football later in the day,” said Callahan Grund, 16, who appears in the parody in an “I ‘Heart’ Beef” T-shirt.
While Grund’s video tapped into student sentiment nationwide, garnering about 1 million views on YouTube, the video website, nutritionists say the response is an overreaction to a small change. Lunch for ninth- through 12th-graders now must be 750 calories to 850 calories each. High school students were provided a mean of 857 calories in 2004-2005, according to a November 2007 report by Princeton, New Jersey-based Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
“The amount of food on a kid’s plate is not much different than in years past -- it is simply healthier,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for nutrition at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversaw the changes.
While there have been nutritional standards since the school lunch program was created by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, the quality and quantity of those meals have varied by school district. Minimum calorie requirements must be met. The caps that went into effect at the start of this school year limits calories at lunch to 650 for kindergarten through fifth grade, 700 for sixth through eighth grade, and 850 for those in high school. The minimum amounts also were scaled back for some grades, such as fourth and seventh, by about 200 calories compared with the traditional menu.
“There’s not enough stuff to fill them up,” Craig Idacavage, the principal at St. Mark’s elementary school in Colwich, Kansas, said in an interview. “They are hungry at 2 p.m. Even the teachers are noticing kids saying they’re hungry and can’t concentrate.”
Opposition to the revamped school lunches is becoming a political hot button. King, the Republican lawmaker, and a co-sponsor started a Facebook page, “Nutrition Nannies,” where mostly irate parents sound off and post updates about student cafeteria boycotts. King is in a re-election bid against Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“I would be in the middle of this policy no matter who I was running against,” King said in an interview.
Backers of the healthier lunches say students get plenty of food. “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart in September pilloried students for tossing out too much of their lunch, saying children should eat their fruits and vegetables. The minimum calorie limits provided to high school students are about the same as a McDonald’s Big Mac and small fries.
Children are also getting about twice the amount of fruits and vegetables as before the law was passed. That means whole wheat cheese pizza with baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes and applesauce in elementary schools instead of a cheese pizza, canned pineapple and Tater Tots. Pizza sticks are being replaced with chicken chef salad.
“They may not get as much garlic bread or nachos, but there’s more fruit and vegetables than ever before,” said Shawn McNulty, principal of Mukwonago High School in Wisconsin.
The Obama administration, urged on by Michelle Obama, had argued that the lunches students had grown accustomed to weren’t as healthy as they could be, especially with more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents overweight or obese. About 17 percent fall into the more severe category of obese, almost triple the rate as in 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, persuading students to embrace salad and other healthy fare is proving harder than many experts expected. At St. Mark’s school in Kansas, about 170 students -- more than half at the school -- brought sack lunches in opposition and wrote letters to elected officials.
“There are less calories and it doesn’t give you enough fuel to get through the day,” Cole Murray, 13, an eighth-grader who came up with the idea of the boycott, said in an interview. “Some kids have recess and PE after lunch.”
Students may just be grumbling because they’re adjusting to more good-for-you foods, Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said in an interview.
“They’re teenagers,” she said, “so it’s not surprising that kids are rebelling against something.”