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Watch: Healthy school lunches prompt viral video protest

2:04 PM, Sep 26, 2012   |    comments
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Healthier school lunches, offered for the first time this year, are getting some push back from students and teachers across the country who say they are still hungry after lunch.

A new YouTube video parody, created by two teachers and some high school students in Kansas, has students singing We Are Hungry as they try to make it through the school day. It had been viewed more than 100,000 times by Tuesday evening.

Other students from Massachusetts to South Dakota have spoken out on websites and blogs about the new meals, and some are brown-bagging it instead of eating the school meal.

"We had chicken nuggets one day. Last year, we got six, and this year, we only got three," says Callahan Grund, a 16-year-old football player at Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kan., who is featured in the video. "We had pork cutlets the other day, and that was really small compared to last year."

At the heart of the hoopla: New government nutrition standards, which went into effect this year to combat childhood obesity, require schools to serve more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. And for the first time, they limit the calories that can be served at meals, based on students' ages. There are also limits on amounts of grains and proteins that can be served in the course of a week.

There are several key differences between the previous standards and the updated ones. For instance, the old lunch standards required that a daily minimum of 825 calories be offered to seventh- through 12th-graders; the updated standards call for a minimum of 750 calories and a maximum of 850 calories to be offered at lunch for all high school students.

The old standards set a 1.5- to 2-ounce daily minimum of a meat or meat alternate such as cheese, peanut butter or tofu. Now there is a daily minimum and weekly maximums. So for instance, high school students must be served at least 2 ounces of a meat or meat alternate daily but no more than 12 ounces in a week. Younger kids are offered less. There are similar requirements for grains.

The biggest problem with the new school lunches is the reduced amount of protein from meat in the meal compared with previous years, says Brenda Kirkham, art and publications teacher at Wallace County High. She came up with the idea of the We Are Hungry video (set to the tune of fun.'s We Are Young) because she felt like she was "starving" after lunch.

"We wanted to give kids a voice and make fun of something that's very frustrating for us -- but not be over-the-top angry."

Linda O'Connor, the English teacher at Wallace County High who wrote the lyrics for the song in the video, says students have been complaining all year that they're not offered enough food.

"Most of our kids are active in physical education and sports, and they work on farms. That 2 ounces of meat daily wasn't enough. By 1:30 to 2 o'clock, they complain about how hungry they are."

But nutrition experts say that there's not a lot of beef behind complaints from students and teachers about the updated standards.

Before the updated standards were implemented, some schools may have been serving a lot of protein to keep their customers happy, "but none of us need as much protein as a lot of us eat," says Leah Schmidt, president-elect of the School Nutrition Association and director of Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, Mo.

Besides meat and meat alternatives, students get protein in milk and legumes, she says.

"It's an outdated idea that kids aren't getting enough protein -- most kids are eating twice the recommended amount," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that fought for the healthier school meals.

Eating 850 calories at lunch is enough for most high schoolers, she says. "Not all students are linebackers, and we shouldn't feed them like they are."

Student athletes who may need more food throughout the day can purchase additional à la carte items to supplement their lunch or bring a snack from home, Wootan adds.

The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of U.S. kids are overweight or obese. A 2010 law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for all food served in schools.

Nanci Hellmich

USA TODAY

Gannett/USA Today

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