Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie, standing, speaks to a group of Sullivan Central students during their lunch period.
BLOUNTVILLE — Students at Sullivan Central High School miss the salad bar, pizza bar and sandwich bar from last year. And at least one laments the lack of salt to spice up potato wedges — when they are available.
Welcome to the world of U.S. school cafeterias after implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which starting this school year mandated the first major changes to school lunch menus in about 15 years.
The goal is to reduce childhood obesity and increase nutrition. But critics, including organizers of a lunchroom boycott in New Jersey, say the legislation signed by President Barack Obama and supported by first lady Michelle Obama has resulted in unpalatable food with not enough calories for some older or more active students.
As a nationwide debate rages over school lunches, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., has waded into the fray, signing on as co-sponsor of legislation that would remove the calorie caps. Sullivan County School Nutrition Manager Lisa Holt said current regulations for grades K-5 have a minimum of 550 and maximum of 650 calories, for grades 6-8 have a minimum of 600 and maximum of 700, and for grades 9-12 have a minimum of 750 and maximum of 850. However, the legislation Roe, a physician, is supporting would not go back to the days of deep-fried foods, hamburgers every day, and salt on every table.
A Kingsport Times-News reporter had lunch Wednesday at Central, getting the same portions as students except opting for ranch salad dressing, which added 210 calories to the meal. “Not all our products are compliant,” Holt said, adding that the federal government gave some leeway since the system had already bid out salad dressing in January before she got word of the changes in April and they went into effect July 1. Next year’s bids will be for low-fat dressing. The only packets available this year were small ones, which would have meant giving students multiple packets. The cost of the guest lunch — the same portions as a student lunch — was $3.75.
Just as for students, Holt said a la carte items, including ice cream or selected additional servings, are extra and are not part of the calorie caps. The reporter had turkey and gravy in a bread bowl, whipped potatoes, a salad, cinnamon apples, fruit cocktail and fat-free chocolate milk.
Director of Schools Jubal Yennie had a barbecue pork platter with green peas, corn on the cob, and scratch-made cornbread that Holt said was made on site at Central. He also had a cookie, which Holt said was a whole grain product.
Students lament taste
“It’s just not made the same,” said Brianna Lawson, a sophomore, who along with friends at her lunch table Wednesday also lamented the loss of the salad bar as Yennie listened. “For some people it’s the only meal they get,” said Lawson, who was eating a Lunchables on Wednesday.
Kelly Light, another sophomore, was eating a sandwich from home Wednesday. “I didn’t usually bring much lunch until this year,” she said. “They have healthy food, I get that, but they’re not making it taste good.”
Sophomore Lucas Patterson said he ate cafeteria food one day this school year before packing his lunch.
“Some of the dudes around here do sports, and they need more calories,” he said. Chelsey Waterman and Wesley Winegar, both sophomores, were eating a cafeteria lunch Wednesday but said they usually pack. “It’s a lot worse,” Waterman said. “I just forgot to pack my lunch,” Winegar added.
Yennie, who solicited feedback from students, said he plans to visit a county school every month or so and maybe more often.
School system Maintenance Supervisor Joe Davenport, whose late mother was the longtime cafeteria manager at Bluff City Elementary, said he eats in a school cafeteria at least once a week and reports his findings — including cell phone photos of his meals — to Holt.
Brenda Malone of Bluff City for the past two Board of Education meetings has spoken during public comments about the food, which she says is subpar in taste and leaves students — especially athletes, band members and others who have after-school activities — hungry.
Holt said she works to provide additional a la carte items such as apples that athletes and other more physically active students can take with them and snack on later.
The same day, another reporter ate lunch with his son at Sullivan County’s Sullivan K-8, the former Sullivan Elementary and Middle schools.
One of the reporter’s children brought lunch, while the other ate items like chips a la carte. Choices were a taco salad with rice, meat, lettuce, salsa and corn and pineapple or a yogurt bread bowl with a cup of yogurt, small cup of granola and bread.
That reporter observed about one-fourth to one-third of the students packing a lunch over two lunch periods. Holt said the big lunchroom news for Sullivan K-8 and all county facilities with elementary students is a project to phase peanut butter and jelly sandwiches back in as a daily choice by Nov. 1.
Since the prepackaged sandwiches count as one meat and 1.25 breads, other items will have to be added to meet the federal regulations, Holt said.
The reporter who ate with Central students Wednesday on Thursday ate with his son and other students at Kingsport’s Robinson Middle School.
It was hot dog day, with the other option a deli sandwich. Jonathan Wagner and his friend Max Cope, both in seventh grade, both had a hot dog on a bun, cut potatoes, a cup of chili, and milk.
The reporter had the same except an extra helping of potatoes, which the cashier said was covered with the $3.60 adult visitor meal. The student price is $2.25.
“I pack sometimes,” Cope said. “If I like it, I eat it. If I don’t, I don’t eat it.” He said his favorite meal is corn dog nuggets, but he really doesn’t like school pizza.
Wagner, however, said the pizza “is really good.” Wagner ate most of his meal and Cope almost all except a few potatoes, but Wagner didn’t drink his milk. He prefers water but doesn’t spent the $1 to get bottled water a la carte.
“I usually do give it (the milk) to somebody,” he said. That friend wasn’t there Thursday, so his dad drank the milk.
Another seventh-grader, Kaiden Pippin, said he likes most cafeteria lunches at Robinson. He had a deli sandwich, cheese only at his request. His favorite days are those with a fruit cup of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
Philip Painter, in seventh grade, summed up his favorite former cafeteria treat: “I miss ice cream sandwiches.” Ice cream is still available for purchase a la carte, but not ice cream sandwiches.
High school perspective
Back in Central, high schoolers had plenty more to say about the cafeteria food, some good but mostly bad.
“I always eat here,” said Alyssa Rupert, a sophomore. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy about the offerings. “It’s not enough,” she said. “The food needs to go together and give us enough to eat.”
She was eating the Mexican meal off the international menu, including a taco salad with Mexican rice, two tostitos with salsa, seasoned corn, cinnamon applies, fruit cocktail and milk.
“I didn’t eat anything,” said Nick Cox, a senior with a group of male friends at another table. “Up until about Monday, there wasn’t much to eat.” He was referring to the continual offering of “Big Daddy Pizza” that started every day Monday.
“The taste is bad. The quantity is about the same. It’s the selection,” he said of overall lunchroom offerings. Cox said he normally eats school lunches about two or three times a week but has been packing Lunchables.
“I really did like the salad bar,” he said, adding that the pizza this year was OK.
“I just didn’t have the money (Wednesday).” Friend Brandon Tinman, a senior, offered Cox his piece of pizza as he ate some salad, and Cox took him up on the offer. “I usually packed until I saw the pizza line back,” Tinman said, calling the pizza “pretty decent.”
Holt said Friday the crust is at least 51 percent whole grain. “It’s very good pizza,” Holt said.
Another student, senior Brendan Gain of Blountville, said: “I would like the salt to come back.” Central Principal Dee Musser said the salt shakers and packets have been gone awhile, although Holt said pepper, ketchup, mustard, honey mustard sauce and other condiments are still available.
Musser said he believes it will take a few years for students who remember the old days of the salad bar, sandwich bar and more hamburgers and french fries with salt to cycle out of the system.
He said the current upperclassmen also remember the “fluffy” rolls, potato bar and rich desserts that also have become extinct in school cafeterias. He said many ninth-graders already believe the high school menu is better because it offers more choices than middle school did.
"It seems to be healthier here,” freshman Lacy Cunningham said, comparing Central’s 2012-13 offerings to Holston Middle’s 2011-12 meals. Eliminating waste Another issue is the budget. The county school system is trying to make school nutrition self-supporting, which it has been for a while in Kingsport.
“We do have a drop in participating,” Holt said Friday. “I couldn’t tell you how much of a percentage it is,” Holt said. She said it’s going to be “a challenge” to make the program self-supporting this year, a plan that was on track until the new federal change took effect.
Last year, participation was 71 percent lunch and 24 percent breakfast, including free and reduced-price meal students. However, Holt said that incrementally the participation is getting better.
In contrast, a move is reportedly under way in a New Jersey school district for a cafeteria boycott to protest the federal changes.
Talking with some parents earlier Wednesday, Yennie said questions about a related issue, wasted food, were at the forefront.
“People are saying that kids are hungry but that we have all this waste,” Yennie said of students throwing away food they won’t eat.
A school district in Florida is considering trash can cameras or surveys to determine how much unconsumed food is thrown away. Holt said she has read about and heard the concerns, too, but as the old saying goes she said sometimes students’ eyes are bigger than their stomachs.
She said the same issue is at restaurants and non-school cafeterias and buffets in general.
“I wonder if they realize we’ve always had waste,” Holt said.