Vicki Wolff recently served garbanzo beans to students in the Newell School District.
As the food services director of the district, it was a first for her and the students, but Wolff witnessed some pleasing results — a lot of them enjoyed the beans.
"One little girl told her dad she really likes them," said Wolff.
Wolff is one of countless food-services directors in the state and country dealing with new regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture that went into effect this year.
Introduced in January as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the new standards are designed to help change the way America's children eat. The updated school lunch regulations are one part of a broader effort to improve health and fitness in America's children. Statistics released this week show that 15.9 percent of South Dakota's children qualify as obese, while the national number is 19.6 percent.
The new lunch regulations require larger servings of fresh fruits and vegetables; whole grains rather than refined grain products; smaller servings of protein and lower sodium content in meals. The regulations also limit calorie count in school lunches. The USDA has promised schools a 6 cent increase in funding to help manage the changes.
The new regulations have sparked protests in some parts of the country, with older students decrying the smaller portions. Statewide, protests have tended to be more individual and directed to the lunch directors themselves.
"I think it's a good idea," Wolff said of the new regulations. "But I did tell the kids, if you have a problem, you need to contact the USDA."
She has even gone so far as to hand a copy of the new regulations to the students to read themselves. "One girl looked at the calorie restrictions and said, '550 calories? That's a snack,'" Wolff said.
Joe Schaffer, food services director for the Meade School District, oversees three school buildings in Sturgis, as well as a school in Whitewood and Piedmont.
Schaffer said the regulation changes, the first changes to lunch requirements in 15 years, haven't had a huge impact on the Meade district, where he and his staff had already started offering healthier food. The district has served whole grains for several years and began watching sodium content awhile back, he said. As a result, students haven't noticed that much of a change in their lunches this year, he said.
The district bottom line, however, has seen some changes. Fresh fruits and vegetables inevitably cost more, Schaffer said.
"The biggest cost factor is using romaine instead of iceberg lettuce," he said. The change doubled the cost.
The changes also required that more staff be hired, Schaffer said. He added six hours for the 2012-2013 school year, largely taken up by fresh fruit and vegetable prep and serving.
"It just takes more people to serve, and it takes longer to serve," he said.
As for any complaints about the amount of food being served under the new guidelines, Schaffer said the first months were the hardest on students. But Schaffer said that might be more perception than reality.
"We're actually putting more food on the plate this year ... but calorie-wise, it's lower," he said.
Richard Ireland, food services director in the Kadoka School District, has received plenty of complaints about the calorie changes, mainly from high school students.
"They're complaining all the time that they're hungry," Ireland said. "They can get more fruits and vegetables, but they don't want it."
Ireland worries students simply replace the lost calories they would have had at lunch with a bag of chips in their locker later. He believes the limits in protein have an especially negative effect on high school students.
"Wouldn't they have been better off if I gave them three hot dogs? ... It's got to be better for them than that bag of potato chips they just ate," he said.
The changes have also stressed the district's food budget, Ireland said. He estimates it costs the district 30 cents more per plate to fulfill the new requirements. Ireland said Kadoka raised lunch prices by 10 cents to help manage the new requirements but it's not nearly enough. Lunches for kindergarten through fifth grade cost students $2.25. Lunches for students in sixth through 12th grades cost $2.65.
The Rapid City Area Schools district also raised its school lunches five cents in the elementary schools and 10 cents in the high schools this year to help manage costs. Lunches are now $2.05 for elementary students and $2.35 for middle and high school students. The district also hired about five more staff members.
"It's costing us about 14 cents more a student than it did before. The cost of food (for the district food program) is up," said Janelle Peterson, food services director for the district. "But then so is going to the grocery store to buy food (for the home)."
Peterson said the district, which has a $5 million food service budget, serves about 7,700 meals a day. Like Meade schools, it began implementing some of the USDA changes early, including whole grains and more fruits and vegetables.
"We're just trying to stay about a year ahead of the regulations," she said. "Our kids have been doing this for a number of years. ... We're not losing customers."
Peterson sees the changes as a positive for students in the long run, despite the challenges it creates now. Because students are experiencing fresh fruits and vegetables now, "they're more apt to eat them later (in life) because of that exposure," she said.
All of the school food directors interviewed noted that the new regulations have been the hardest to accept for high school students, who have resisted both the larger fruit and vegetable servings and smaller portions over all.
The elementary students, by contrast, seem more adaptable. Even Ireland, who isn't a fan of the changes, admits his younger customers might be more willing to eat their vegetables in the future thanks to their exposure in school lunches.
"I believe that those kindergartners will probably start eating their vegetables. If we start with them and give them all the healthy stuff every day for the next 12 years, they're probably going to eat a whole lot more fruits and vegetables than my seniors," he said. "I'm sure that will happen. It might eventually work, but it's going to cost a lot of money and a lot of headaches."
Elliott Warshaw is with the Food Services Management Co., which oversees school lunches in the Custer, Hot Springs, Spearfish and Belle Fourche districts. He said that while the regulations have cost districts more and can be challenging, he also sees more grade-school students reaching for the broccoli and carrots.
"We believe that it creates an eating pattern that they can take with them throughout their entire life," he said.
For supporters of the new regulations, that's the goal.
Wolff said her grade school students in Newell continue to "do really well with it." She recently served them fresh squash sprinkled lightly with cinnamon and sugar. She was pleased with their response.
"Some of them really liked it, some didn't," she said. "But at least they tried it."