A Teacher Worries About Calorie Caps and His Impoverished, Hungry Students

Every now and then I get a comment from a TLT reader that I want to highlight in a separate blog post so that more of you will see it.  That was the case with this account from a public school teacher named Brian.  Please read on:

I enjoy this blog and read it regularly so I thought I’d share a story from the trenches, as it were.

I am a 1st grade teacher in a southern state, Title I school (95% free and reduced lunch) and here is the reality of the new food guidelines in my school: I know this is true because I eat breakfast and lunch with my kids every day and I eat the same foods they eat.

Funny that I pay an “adult” price for the breakfast and lunch but receive the same portions as the kids receive. I’m not complaining — my waistline is shrinking and that’s a good thing for me — but I’m pained every day watching my hungry kids stay hungry after eating lunch and nearly every day I have to comfort sad children who don’t understand why they can’t eat what they want when they are presented with a long line of choices.

These are children who may not eat an evening meal at home and may not get more than one meal a day on weekends, if that. Some parents are unable (for various reasons) to get their children to school on time for the free breakfast, which is also severely limited in choice, so these children face true hunger every day.

When the children go through the lunch line they are allowed the following choices: 1 entree which is a choice between 2 hot items, or a ham or turkey sandwich with cheese and lettuce on a dry bun, a peanut butter and jelly (prepackaged) sandwich,or occasionally a spicy chicken wrap, a cup of low-fat plain yogurt parfait with grapes and granola topping, or a 2-cup portion salad (usually a chef salad with a smattering of chopped lunchmeat or a chicken Caesar salad). Condiments are iffy but usually available.

There is a choice of up to 2 vegetables, usually one hot vegetable choice and maybe a cold vegetable, such as sliced cucumbers or a very small (1/2 cup?) romaine lettuce salad with 1 or 2 cucumber slices and a wedge of tomato.

There is a choice of 2 fruits. If the child chooses a half-pint juice that is considered one fruit choice. There are usually two whole fruits, such as apples and quartered oranges, and canned fruits such as unsweetened applesauce or diced pears in water. If they choose the yogurt parfait for their entree and a juice they are not allowed another fruit but may choose a vegetable (most don’t).

The children get their entree, a vegetable (most usually skip the vegetable — though I highly encourage it and try to set a good example even when the vegetables are tasteless, unseasoned, and overcooked, which is nearly always), and a juice and a fruit.

Just this week I have had four of my 6-year olds in tears over lunch on more than one occasion. Two were crying inconsolably because they were not allowed to get a juice and 2 fruits and they were very hungry. They eventually confessed that they hadn’t eaten anything since lunch the day before. I keep healthy snacks in the classroom in open containers that they are free to take whenever they choose but even at age 6 pride keeps some from admitting their hunger. The other two children were crying because they didn’t care for any of the choices for entree or vegetable and they weren’t allowed to substitute an extra fruit so they knew they would stay hungry. I bought some extra fruits on my tray and gave it to them when we were seated, along with my juice. We are not allowed to “share” food by state law but I am a maverick and make sure kids get what they want as far as I am able. I also pay if any of my kids’ parents forget or are unable to pay for lunch. None of my kids will ever go hungry while in my care!

This is overlong now so I won’t go into great detail about the breakfast menu — rather bleak by my standards but at least it is free and many of our kids do partake of a choice between a serving of cereal, a whole wheat “donut hole” or pre-packaged breakfast burrito/2 french toast sticks/or 4 mini pancakes. On very rare occasions we have whole wheat biscuits with a breaded chicken patty or a reheated frozen “omelet” (Egg Beaters) with a quarter slice of American low-fat cheese. And bless those cafeteria ladies (I highly respect them all — they are constrained by district and state mandates) 1/2 cup of cheese grits!

I think it is important to point out that this isn’t just an issue for middle class families who care deeply about their child’s diet and are able to provide abundant healthy food choices but school menus have great impact on many, many poor children who, through no fault of their own and often with no agency to change the situation, end up being pawns in the lunch tray wars.

The new 650-calorie limit on a kindergartener’s lunch was set by the Institute of Medicine based on 1/3 of a child’s daily recommended caloric intake. But if a child isn’t getting dinner the night before, or breakfast that morning, of course a 650-calorie meal is not nearly enough to feed that child.

I was relaying Brian’s account to someone who suggested that maybe the new calorie caps shouldn’t apply at Title One schools.  That’s an appealing idea on its face, but it’s important to remember that schools in economically depressed areas can offer free, in-class breakfast and also qualify for the newly expanded federal after-school snack program.  Furthermore, as we’ve discussed here in the past, poverty and childhood obesity are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s notable to me that even the Food Research and Action Center (one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger nonprofits), strongly opposes the recent efforts by Iowa Congressman Steve King to repeal the calorie caps.

But at the same time, Brian’s sobering story makes clear that millions of American children live in food insecure homes, school meals are often their only dependable source of food, yet for a variety of reasons (parental neglect, stigma, etc.) they may not be getting all the food that’s being made available to them at school.  It’s a tragic situation.

This seems like a good time to remind my readers that at the top of every Lunch Tray page is a tab which reads, “Help Hungry Kids.”  You’ll find there a list of charities I particularly like which are devoted to ameliorating hunger, here at home and worldwide.

Thanks in advance to those who contribute to this critical cause, and thanks to Brian for sharing his story.

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  1. says

    Brian’s tale is a good reminder of the fact that the Law of Unintended Consequences is always ready to take our best intentions and turn them into a you-know-what sandwich.


  2. says

    This isn’t an indicator that calorie caps are wrong – it’s an indicator that we need more targeted support outside of schools.

    Adding calories to lunch doesn’t help kids on school holidays, on weekends, on half-days, and during the summer (I’ve found there is a lag between the beginning/end of school and the summer lunch program – don’t know if that is everywhere or just here.)

    The solution to these kids needs is not overfeeding everyone – it means we need to find ways to identify these kids and develop programs expressly for them to get 3 squares a day, 365 days a year.

  3. Casey says

    This story points out how ridiculous it is that the same politicians supporting legislation to roll back the calorie caps also support deep cuts to food stamps. This will only make the problem of food insecurity, hunger and related obesity worse if kids are trying to get a day’s worth of calories in one meal at school.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      And I believe there’s also a connection between being on food stamps and certification for free school meals, so pushing kids off the former affects the latter.

  4. Casey says

    That’s a distinct possibility: “Several hundred thousand low-income children would lose access to free school meals. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 280,000 children in low-income families whose eligibility for free school meals is tied to their receipt of SNAP would lose free meals when their families lost SNAP benefits.” http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3800#_ftnref4

  5. RedinNC says

    Thanks for this important perspective on this news story. It’s interesting you say they are limited on fruits and vegetables, because I’ve heard the national legislation allows unlimited fruits and vegetables. It’s terrible if hungry kids are being denied food. If the kids are going hungry because they don’t LIKE what’s being served, I have less sympathy, however. Now we’ve just got to find ways to make school food (especially vegetables), tasty, fresh, and real.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Even though I just wrote about this last week (!) I wasn’t remembering the issue of unlimited fruits and vegetables. I’m going to make sure that’s true – I learned it from ABC News but didn’t check the regs myself – and then I’ll ask Brian why this isn’t happening in his school.

      • Maggie says

        Budgetary concerns could also be part of the issue. Meaning, are there enough funds to offer unlimited fruits & vegetables?

        I have no knowledge of Brian’s school or its finances, but that was a thought that occurred to me.

        We do offer second servings of either fruit or vegetables if students have finished their meal and are still hungry. There are not a lot that take us up on that offer, maybe 10 at most out of 480-500 (and usually fruit, rarely vegetables). A totally different school population than Brian’s school! Not intended to compare or criticize his school!

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Maggie: I’ve been swamped today and haven’t had a chance to check the rules so I’ll take the lazy way out and ask — is the “seconds on fruit/veg for hungry kids” thing actually required by the new rules or just the custom of most schools?

          • Maggie says

            I’m going to be very honest with you. The rules are so new – clarifications continue to be issued for the rules. I am not sure!

            I can tell you that there are minimum serving sizes that must be offered in the fruit and vegetable categories. There are calorie limits. I’ve been trying to find documentation that would tell me, clearly, what is the rule …if serving extra fruits and vegetables cause the meal to go over the calorie limits…what happens then?

            The meats and breads – there is a specific maximum for those groups. The fruits and vegetables serving sizes are a minimum, not a maximum. But, again, I’m thinking that the calorie ranges would still apply.

            Yes, this kind of question, along with many others, are making menu planning a crazy situation right now.

            And, as I said before, if a meal program has financial restraints, it could have a impact. As long as you are meeting the rules, you are not required to do more.

            Brian, were the students allowed to eat or take more fruits and vegetables before the new rules?

            The serving sizes at an individual building provided are also going to make a difference. The minimum for K-5 is 1/2 cup fruit so, if Brian’s school is offering 1/4 cup servings, that might be part of it.

            It’s so hard to comment without knowing more about how the menus have been planned and everything that is going on. What looks like one thing from the “outside” might be different than what we think we are seeing.

            Sorry, I don’t think I really answered the exact question. I don’t think that there is a requirement to offer more than what the rule specifies. I hope another food service person can chime in if I’m off base on this.

            I should also note that even at our school, the students are limited as to what they can take the first time through the line, they take their first servings and can return if they are still hungry after eating what they took the first time.

          • Maggie says

            Bettina, just got a USDA fact sheet today and here’s one paragraph from it

            “Also, there are no specific maximums on fruits, vegetables or milk. Schools may choose to allow greater than the required minimums by offering self-serve salad bars or allowing second servings of these components. Additional servings do count toward the weekly calorie limits, but because fruits and vegetables are generally lower in calories, they can be excellent sources for satisfying meals and sustained energy.”

            It isn’t a requirement, but the schools “may”.

            I wanted to add the comment that the meal programs have never (to my knowledge) been an all-you-care-to-eat program, and even under the previous regulations and offer vs serve, students would not have been able to choose extra of their favored items as a substitute for others, or always be able choose more than the planned meals/menus.

      • Brian says

        Bettina, when we go through the lunch line we are told “2 fruits only”. It seems to be at least a district interpretation of the policy if not a state interpretation. Every single day I have children in my class who are told to “put back the juice or the applesauce; you can only have 2 fruits.” I will try to find out what the specific regulations are.

  6. says

    No one program can provide a full solution. School lunch doesn’t address the problem of poverty and it’s relationship to obesity. When children (or adults) each non nutritious food (whether from school or from the convenience store), their bodies still crave those healthy fats, and vitamins they need. Calorie caps do not address this issue. 650 calories of enriched foods, or only carbohydrates are not going to be sufficient to satisfy.

    I think this country’s food issues are so deeply flawed that each of these attempts at a solution are destined to fail unless shored up with adequate food security, elimination of food deserts in poor communities, the elimination of price supports for foods that don’t support our health, etc.

    Ok, off my soapbox for now.

  7. says

    I’ve been looking for the “seconds on fruits and vegetables” rule, and haven’t been able to find it, myself. It’s worth noting that how school lunch rules are applied varies from state to state, and also the budgetary support from state government or lack of it may be a factor.

  8. says

    And, amidst the ongoing kerfuffle regarding school nutrition, we hear that the US is looking to scrap the agreement w/Mexico re: tomato imports. At the behest of those models of civic behavior, the Florida tomato growers.

    This came to mind this morning, as I was chomping down on some delicious grape tomatoes: soft, succulent, and tasty – nothing at all like the perfect, flavorless little hardballs that fly off the back of trucks in the FL tomato fields. Seriously, if I could be assured a supply of these little critters, I would be tempted to convert to a tomatoterian. (And, had these been the norm when I was growing up, I would probably be much happier eating veg than I am today.)


  9. Laura says

    I have to agree with RedInNC – the kids have a choice of what to eat, and if they don’t like certain things, I have very little sympathy. They would probably like cookies/chips and those would also be quite calorie-dense (and therefore more likely to fill their tummies) – but I don’t think anyone here would advocate that lunch for low-income children should be junk food. It sounds like there is a lot of choice on the menu; maybe the kids just need to be more clearly instructed what their options are so they can make better choices? I realize that may be tough for the little ones though…

    • Brian says

      Laura, you are welcome to come and explain to my chronically hungry 6-year old kids why they should just be thankful and eat whatever over-processed, over-cooked, tasteless food is put before them because, well, RedinNC and Laura have no sympathy for you. Let me know how that works out for the rest of the day while they are crying because their stomachs hurt and they can’t concentrate on learning to read or solving math problems. You help me understand why things are the way they are.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Brian: Two commenters on this post are denying that childhood hunger exists at all in the US. You can choose to respond or not – just wanted to let you know.

      • bw1 says

        “you are welcome to come and explain to my chronically hungry 6-year old kids why they should just be thankful and eat whatever over-processed, over-cooked, tasteless food is put before them”

        My Dad didn’t have any problem telling me, and his father didn’t seem to have any problem telling him. My mother wasn’t a five star chef, and we always ate what was put in front of us, because our cognitive understanding that it was expected of us overrode our emotional desire to only eat what tasted good.

        We knew our parents worked hard to put that food in front of us and we wouldn’t think of dishonoring that effort by turning our noses up at it.

  10. says

    Brian – This just makes my CRY. Thank you for sharing this – Bettina, thank you for posting Brian’s comment here for all to read. What a tragically moving eye-opener. I’ll be sharing your hungry kid charities as well as this post with my readers. God bless you Brian, and the many other teachers and school workers who are as caring and generous as you.

  11. n says

    If you really want to help hungry kids, give them also breakfast and dinner. Adding calories to lunch is not a solution to day long hunger. One uber big lunch per day will not save you from hunger next morning, will not make you focus and is definitely no healthy.

    I agree that the limit of amount of fruits is funny, but I suspect that it is more a question of money then calories.

    It does not seem like that from the current discussion, but ones feeling of hunger is not that much a function of calories. It is function of proteins and fats. How long will you stay satiated is more function of fats, sugary food will keep you hungry even if you ate a lot.

    • bw1 says

      “If you really want to help hungry kids, give them also breakfast and dinner. ”

      Why stop there? Why not just add a dormitory to the school and care for them 24/7, because they’re probably not being ideally housed either? Why not take them from parents at birth and have the state raise them?

  12. BM says

    As a non-american, i am so confused by this. In my 12+ years going to school, I bought food at school maybe once a year. Almost always, I brought food from home for lunch. As I got older, it was made by me more and more often. Granted, usually just sandwiches, but lunch none the less.
    Can these children not bring a jam sandwich from home to supplement the school meal? or their own fruit from home? Can their families seriously not afford to do that?
    Or is it against the rules? Are they not allowed to bring fruit from home?
    Either way, something is seriously wrong with your ‘first world’ country.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      BM: I understand your confusion, but it’s the sad case that some families either don’t have the knowledge and resources to send a healthful lunch or they may simply be neglectful parents. There is no rule against bringing fruit from home.


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