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Cocke County students find new school lunches hard to swallow
News, Schools
Cocke County students find new school lunches hard to swallow

While school lunches have almost always had a bad reputation, some students in Cocke County are now finding them even harder to swallow.

"I don't like the lettuce," said eighth-grader Haley Styles. "It's kinda weird-tasting. It tastes like grass."

But that "grass" is part of the new federal school menu requirements, laid out in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The 1994 law was re-authorized in 2010, with new, stricter food requirements taking effect July 1, 2012.

"Bottom line, it's going to be a tough year, it's going to be a tough adjustment for us," said Terri Sawyer, food service supervisor for the Cocke County School System.

While some other East Tennessee school districts have been gradually making the meal changes, Cocke County has not, meaning drastic changes are in store for this year's menu.

"When we started school August 1, it was a whole new world for our kids," Sawyer said. "A lot of them haven't seen a lot of the vegetables and a lot of the fruits that we have now."

The guidelines not only require more fruits and vegetables on a child's plate, but they also place a calorie cap on the meal, something that Cocke County has not paid much attention to in the past.

"It's always been kind of a buffet," Sawyer said. "Our high school had three lines. It had a sandwich line, a pizza line every day, plus what we called Granny's cooking, and so now, with the new regulations, of course, those lines are gone, we're having main cooking lines, and we have one additional line, but it offers the same vegetables on all three lines. The days of french fries, the days of a plate going through with french fries and a pizza on it, those things are gone."

Sawyer and her staff are busy testing out new recipes that conform to the guidelines. For the first time, students recently had white chicken chili, and on Thursday, were served a sandwich made with deli thins instead of a bun.

"There's some food I don't like and some food I do like," said eighth-grader Eli Ball. "It just don't have the same taste to it."

At Grassy Fork Elementary, where nearly all of the 100 or so students there have typically eaten the school lunch, a recent day saw a quarter of them bringing their meals from home.

Others are simply not eating much at all. So instead of full bellies, educators are seeing full trash cans, in some cases.

That's a major concern when around 76 percent of the students in the county receive free or reduced lunch. Some may not eat much more at home.

"I think it's a good thing for the kids to have a nutritional meal, but on the other side, if they're not going to eat much here, are they gonna go home hungry, and that bothers me," said Connie Ball, principal at Edgemont Elementary.

Ball has heard the complaints, and so have many of the other leaders. 

But the guidelines are set out by the federal government, so there is no choice but to comply if leaders want to continue to get federal funding.

In Knox County, officials say they've gradually implemented the new requirements. They're close to meeting the guidelines set out for next year, and they're already two years ahead on breakfast, according to Jon Dickl, director of school nutrition.

But instead of children backing away from the changes, the students seem to be approving. Dickl reports the number of students eating the school lunch has increased by 11 percent.

Perhaps those numbers could act as a glimmer of hope for Cocke County, where things are still a little rocky.

"It's just a matter of learning, and so now, the lunch program is a big part of the educational day. We're trying to teach them how to eat healthier," Sawyer said.

But the concerns stretch beyond the food. Sawyer also is concerned about the bottom line.

The food service department is self-supporting, and receives a reimbursement for each meal bought or served through the free and reduced program.

"If our meals served goes down, then our money is going to go down, then we won't be able to employ as many people or we wouldn't be able to maybe serve all the fresh fruits that we wanted to, those kinds of things," Sawyer said. "It is a cycle, so one thing depends on the other."





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