LEWISTOWN - As the students of Mifflin County High School filed into the lunch room on Thursday afternoon, more than 670 of them sat down to packed lunches rather than paying for the school lunches. The event, known as Pack Your Lunch Day, was organized by a group of Mifflin County seniors in protest of the new federal regulations placed on school lunch offerings.
"We know the cafeteria ladies, Mr. Crosson and the school board are not making the decisions on healthy food regulations - it's a federal thing," said Patrick Parker, one of the event organizers. "It's a matter of principle that we feel the government has no right to tell us how to eat."
Pennsylvania school districts were informed of the new federal lunch regulations in July, said Melanie Hill, food service supervisor for the Mifflin County School District. The changes had to be in effect by the beginning of this school year, she said.
Photo submitted by IAN McGINNIS
Mifflin County High School students, from left, James Wilburne, Brooke Riden, Sydney Shirey, Kelsey Barth, Shane Whalen, Logan Snyder, Patrick Parker, Ian McGinnis and Derek Heimbach eat packed lunches Thursday as part of the protest against federally-regulated school lunches.
"For the first time we have calorie limits for each grade group that must be followed," Hill said. "Also, vegetables and fruit used to be grouped together, you'd have half a cup of fruit or half a cup of vegetable, but now they are separate. At the high school level I have to offer a full cup of vegetables and a full cup of fruit."
According to the federal regulations, each school lunch must include a low fat or fat free milk, one cup of fruit, one cup of vegetable, two ounces of grain and two ounces of protein. The regulations also state that students in kindergarten through grade 5 are permitted between 550 and 650 calories at lunch, grades 6 to 8 can have 600 to 700 calories and grades 9 to 12 can have 750 to 850 calories.
"I used to eat lunch every day, but now it's two or three times a week because the lunches are so bad I'd rather starve than eat the food," said Stephanie Helsel, a senior at MCHS participating in the protest. "They say they are trying to give us healthy foods, but frozen and canned foods are not healthy. The food could be LUNCH improved by using food that is less processed."
Another concern, said Ian McGinnis, one of the protest organizers, is the portion size for those athletes at the school. The smaller servings don't satisfy and leave athletes hungry as they head out for practice after school, he said.
"Before these changes, lunches were larger, with better choices and more dessert and side options," McGinnis said. "We used to get three cheese sticks where as now we get two. We also used to get melted cheese on the tacos and nachos and now we just get a small lettuce cup."
James Wilburne, also an athlete at MCHS, said the portions are so small he buys double lunch every day so he isn't hungry through the rest of the school day and practice.
"My personal complaints are that the lunches and other purchasable consumables are overpriced and the serving sizes are absurdly small," Wilburne said. "I spend $6 at lunch just to get enough food to fill myself up, spending at least $30 a week."
A full lunch for high school students costs $2.40.
The issue, said Mark Crosson, principal of MCHS, is that the kids are offered a large amount of food, but they aren't taking it. In response to a picture posted on Facebook of a milk and peanut butter sandwich tray, Crosson said the picture is deceiving.
"In that particular instance, they chose, on their own, to only buy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a milk," Crosson said. "Though that is all the person ate, it was by choice, not by mandate. They could have had a cup of fruit and vegetables if they had chosen to do so."
A whole lunch is five components, Hill said, but the style is "offer" versus "serve." Previously, all the food was served on a tray, but the majority of it ended up in the trash. To waste less food, the district now offers lunch so kids can pick what they want and less gets thrown away, she said.
"I've heard some kids aren't getting a full lunch because of portions, but they aren't taking everything that is offered," Hill said. "A full lunch includes a cup of vegetable, a cup of fruit, a grain, a protein and milk."
Regardless of the protest, lunch service will go on as normal for the school year, said Vance Varner, director of secondary education. It's a student's right to pack a lunch and they are allowed to do that, but the school still has students who rely on free or reduced lunches because they don't have the means to pack their own lunch, he said.
"We have guidelines for attendance, we have guidelines for curriculum, we have guidelines for standardized tests and we have always had guidelines for our food services," Varner said. "Is anyone on the federal level going to know if students pack their lunch instead of buying? Unfortunately no."
Protest Organizers Parker, McGinnis, Derek Heimbach and Cy Treaster understand that their protest won't have a large impact, but that you have to start somewhere. If enough schools and students get involved, the government cannot turn a blind eye, Parker said.
"Our protest alone probably won't change anything but, with other schools across the country, we might make the government listen," Parker said. "While we know it's not up to the district to make decisions on our food, we want to take our concerns to the next level. Our next steps might include an extended protest or writing to state representatives."
For more information on federal lunch regulations regarding Mifflin County School District, visit www.mcsdk12.org/admin/lunch-pages/default.htm. To find out more about the new USDA Guidelines, visit www.TrayTalk.org.