Two years ago, sweeping changes to federal school lunch guidelines put more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on cafeteria trays.
But the healthful options haven't been popular with students (you might remember the catchy video some Kansas kids made blasting the changes). And for the first time in 30 years, the number of meals purchased in school cafeterias is in decline.
Now Congress is considering loosening some of the 2012 requirements, and they have an unusual ally in the School Nutrition Association, the organization of lunch ladies and cafeteria workers who originally lobbied in favor of the changes. Against outcry from healthy food advocates, the group is supporting flexibility waivers for schools where lunch participation has really dropped off.
"We still support nutritious food for students, and we're not asking to go back," says SNA President Leah Schmidt, a nutritionist for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, Mo. "We're asking actually to stay where we are, take a little pause and allow for students to adapt to the new foods that we're serving them."
In Missouri and Kansas, participation in the school lunch program is down about four percent over the past two years. Schmidt says the changes have been most pronounced in suburban districts where fewer kids receive free or reduced price meals.
"Students who are paying for their meals are choosing not to eat with us because they're just not liking the changes," she says.
Participation in Schmidt's district, where about 86 percent of kids receive lunch assistance, has remained more stable. But she says a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables – the ones students are now required to take – end up in trash cans.
What a delay in rolling out guidelines would mean for schools
But will a year make much of a difference?
Schmidt thinks so. She says nutritionists are already making plans for how they'd make the most of a pause. They want more time to work with manufacturers to find products students will like. They also want time to tweak recipes and get feedback from students.
"For the past two years, we've spend an enormous amount of time trying to get menus that would work and be compliant," says Schmidt. "It's been all-consuming. We really just feel like if we could do some marketing of the programs, that would be a helpful thing."
Across the country, Schmidt says nutritionists have really struggled to find whole-grain versions of regional favorites – think grits in the South, tortillas in New Mexico and bagels in New York. Kids eat those foods all the time at home, and they expect them to taste a certain way. Hickman Mills had to drop macaroni and cheese from its menu because kids didn't like the whole-grain pasta the district was buying.
That's not to say all of the menu changes have been unpopular.
"The latest recipe we've done is a Mexi-chicken wrap," says Schmidt. "It's got a Mexican ranch dressing in a wrap with lettuce, tomato and cheese. It's pretty good."