UPDATE 8/10/12 @ 5 p.m.
ASHLAND, Ky. (WSAZ) -- When it comes to in-school meals this year, "what's for lunch?" is a work in progress. New federal mandates on nutrition and calories have created many challenges for cooks students, and staff.
A viewer's picture sent to WSAZ.com of a school lunch tray sparked hundreds of Facebook posts and twitter hits. The big question -- was it a full or partial meal?
We went to Greenup County High, where the picture supposedly originated. The school food service folks said that meal was far from complete. But many students asked us to come back on another day, unannounced, and we would get a different story.
The Hunger Free Kids Act that kicked in July 1 eliminated the long standing pizza, fries and brownie line, and pushed the fruits and veggies.
So this time, WSAZ.com went to a different school district, to a grade school instead of high school. We found many of the same concerns over limits on calories and portions -- and making sure some children have enough to eat.
On a Monday, the lunch menu at Ashland Independent School District’s Hager Elementary -- it was hamburger and bun, tater tots, optional lettuce and tomato, milk and a fruit cup. The optional apples were tucked away from the main line and not often touched.
But, many of the student trays had much less than the full nutritional assortment offered.
“If they don’t have a fruit or vegetable, do you send them back through the line?" asked Randy Yohe.
"This tray has meat, a bun, tater tots and milk -- four elements, so they have what's needed with the potatoes," answered Kitchen Manager Linda Moore. "If she didn't have that, I'd say do you want to pick out a fruit or vegetable?”
“When they get in line they see a menu that matches up with the color-coded big food chart," added Food Services Director Lora Pullin. "And they know they have to pick three colors.”
But are grade schoolers paying close attention to menus and food charts?
They say the push is for more leafy greens -- but today's vegetable was tater tots. Pullin says they are required to offer one starch vegetable like tater tots once a week.
Tomorrow its carrots -- and the next day?
“They are including vegetables that maybe we never cooked before, and kids have never seen before -- it’s going to take time,” Pullin says.
Instead of the serving tray options, students can pick a chef's salad.
They said kids picked up about 20 of these on this day. But there is a concern here and elsewhere with limited calories, that for some needy children -- this is their only meal. And for the price of a meal without extras, they say, for $1.50 they don get full.
“All we can do is follow the guidelines -- we try to give as much food as we can, but it is a concern,“ said Pullin.
Many schools are seeing an increase in students bringing their lunch. No official numbers are being reported at this time, but WSAZ.com conducted a survey at the sixth grade lunch table.
” I bring my lunch because I like more food from home,” said one student.
“Why no fruit cup?" another student was asked. "I don't like fruit,” was the answer.
“The meals are just as good as last year,” added another student.
“We don't get any more brownies, chocolate muffins, because of Michelle Obama, they have to give us healthy crap,“ explained another sixth grader.
WSAZ.com has talked to some school districts where students can't bring obvious fast food in to the building for lunch. Other schools say parents are having fast food delivered to students for lunch.
Many school districts say meeting the federal meal mandate is a work in progress. One student told us, it’s not as tasty, it’s healthier -- and we just have to get used to it.
Many school districts are now comparing notes on implementing the new program, figuring out what works and what doesn't.
A new federal mandate has revamped school lunches this year. It has WSAZ viewers posting and tweeting galore.
WSAZ.com’s Randy Yohe looked into the posted lunch picture that has so many talking.
A photo from Greenup County High School that went viral on Facebook is what some parents say is all their kids now get in a regular lunch.
We posted it and had about 1,000 comments by lunchtime. The school says it was only a partial lunch. It's part of the new Healthy Hunger and Free Kids Act of 2010 that went into effect July 1.
Scott Burchett, food service director with Greenup County Schools, showed what a full serving lunch actually looks like. At $2.25, it has fruit and vegetables -- with the condiments added.
Burchett says the new federal mandate calls for new nutritional and dietary requirements.
“It limits the amount of calories, sodium, fat per week that you can have, with more fruits and vegetables available,” Burchett said.
Chief Cook Linda Salyers said, “That line used to be for pizza, sandwiches and fries but not anymore.”
Salyers, who is the cafeteria manager, says her cooks are challenged with the new recipes. Rolls used to be 2 ounces; now they're half of that. Salyers said many students are complaining about the choices.
”The healthy stuff has gone up and the unhealthy stuff has gone down, and they don't like it," she said. "They want the unhealthy stuff -- the junk food."
Some students who brought their lunch from home told us it was because they wanted bigger portions. Some students said the cafeteria was giving out more food Tuesday because the news camera was there, but much of the food is self service.
And we’re told that double entrees cost extra, but you can get extra vegetables, fruits and more for no charge.
Then, there's the concern for the at-risk students -- whether they be low income or overweight.
“For some kids, this is the only meal they get, and they don’t get full from it," student Mackenzie Dunaway said. "And you do pay more for a smaller portion of food.”
Student Jacob Smith said, "It's getting people to eat better when they grow up to not be obese, but sometimes you need a little more protein in your mouth."
The cooks and food service director say implementing the new federal meal mandate is still a work in progress and may need tweaking.