FOX19 Investigates: Making healthy school lunches work

Dustin Davis, 4th grader
Dustin Davis, 4th grader
Christen Oney, 4th grader
Christen Oney, 4th grader
Tommy Castrucci, 4th grader
Tommy Castrucci, 4th grader

HEBRON, KY (FOX19) - You've heard the debate over those new healthy lunches in America's classrooms. Many parents like the idea their kids are eating healthier. But some say the calorie restrictions leave their kids hungry, while other critics say it's leading to a lot of wasted food that kids are refusing to eat.

Having heard all of the complaints, FOX19's investigative team decided to see what's happening inside a Tri-State school. We contacted Boone County school leaders, who invited us inside the new Thornwilde Elementary in Hebron.

What we found was a healthy menu that, for the most part, appears to be working.

On the day we visited, the main item on the menu was spaghetti made from whole grain pasta.

"Can I have some spaghetti with chili?" one boy in the lunch line asked --- a question that would surely throw cafeteria workers in other parts of the country for a loop. But it's the key to making these healthy lunches work, believes cafeteria manager Dawn Schwamb. You have to offer kids choices.

"They can pick something off of each tray," she said, putting out fruit cups and cups of strawberries. "There's no limit to how much that they can take (when it comes to) fresh fruits and vegetables."

And if students here don't like spaghetti or whatever else is on the menu, they can choose something different to eat, such as a sandwich.

"It tastes way better than a restaurant," said 4th grader Tommy Castrucci.

His classmate, Dustin Davis, told us he likes the school lunches at Thornwilde better than McDonald's.

"Really?" we asked.

"Yeah," he said. "McDonald's is not healthy."

At public schools in Boone County, they didn't wait on First Lady Michelle Obama's push for healthier lunch food to jump on the bandwagon. They've been moving in this direction for the past five years. Now that other schools in the Tri-State are jumping on, though, it does give them an advantage.

"It makes our purchasing easier because other districts are purchasing whole grain items," said Barbara Kincaid, director of food services for Boone County public schools. "They're purchasing more fruits and vegetables, which brings the price down."

Mrs. Obama is among those urging schools to improve the quality of food they serve kids due to the nation's obesity epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1980 and 2008, the number of obese children in America tripled.

So starting last fall, the federal government made school cafeteria managers set a limit of about 600 calories per lunch. The rules about what they can serve kids get even more stringent starting next fall, when half of the breads served for breakfast at school have to be whole grain. By the 2014-2015 school year, all of the grains offered at breakfast and lunch have to be whole grain products.

The timeline for the standards are spelled-out in a federal document available online.

Not everyone at Thornwilde is wild about the move toward healthier food.

"My mom, she sticks salt and pepper in it. So it has more flavor," 4th grader Christen Oney told us after eating the healthy spaghetti. "But I don't taste the flavor here."

Other kids in Boone County have complained about changes this year, following the publicity over Mrs. Obama's efforts, even though they've been served the same ingredients for several years now.

One of them shared his frustration with Barbara Kincaid over the whole grain crust now in the schools system's pizza.

"I had to laugh because that's the exact same pizza," Kincaid said. "Nothing has changed in the last three years. But now he knows it's whole grain crust."

The cafeteria manager at a Catholic school in Northern Kentucky, who chose not to go on camera, tells FOX19 she's had to find creative ways to integrate the healthier ingredients into her students' lunches. But she says the new federal standards have not led to many complaints or increased waste at her school, either.

What was interesting to see at Thornwilde was how many of the students truly seem to appreciate the food prepared for them.

"I think the lunch ladies take out a lot of time and put in a lot of hard work to make our food, to make it nice and healthy," Dustin Davis said. It was a remark we didn't solicit from him. He offered it on his own.

They say good food is made with lots of love.

Here at Thornwilde, most of the kids we talked with love what they eat.

To view a timeline of the implementation of meal requirements, click here.

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