The food showing up on your child's tray at school is the result of a discussion that started several years ago.
In 2010, U.S. Congress approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, allowing the USDA to set new nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program.
This discussion was spurred on by statistics showing that one in three children and teenagers in America is overweight or obese.
The new lunch standards, now in effect, are getting mixed reviews -- from students to U.S. lawmakers.
Home is where...
Tonya Huenink, registered dietician at Hy-Vee, is helping Le Mars Community School adapt to the new regulations.
Huenink said she thinks the guidelines help schools do a good job teaching students how many calories they need and introducing them to more fruits and vegetables.
But school lunch changes won't be enough to solve the obesity problem among America's youth, she said.
"Parents need to come alongside and make sure they're making those good decisions at home," she said. "It's not going to work unless parents get on board."
The school nutrition changes are designed to show students what a balanced meal looks like, Huenink said.
"A lot of kids are not seeing that at home, whether it's because of time constraints because both parents are working, monetary restraints, whatever," she said. "A lot of kids are not getting a fruit and vegetable and whole grains at home."
As for students saying they'd like more to eat for school lunch than the new guidelines allow, Huenink said she thinks they'd feel they received enough food if they eat all the fruits and vegetables offered.
Parents can help with this, she said.
"If parents at home can be really positive with them, 'I think it's great your school is giving you fruits and vegetables, and we're going to try to do the same at home,' that would go a long way," she said. "The more exposure the kids get at home to these things, the more they're going to eat them at school."
LCS' food service director, Judy Lubben, had a similar view about the school lunch changes.
"Kids don't eat that way, not at home," Lubben said. "We're in a society where it's been fast food."
U.S. Sen. Grassley also indicated the issue might be larger than a school lunch change can solve.
"We do have an obesity problem, so I'm not going to condemn anybody for trying to fight obesity," he said. "Kids don't eat very many of their meals in school out of the 21 meals people eat in a week, and if you eat in between meals you're eating a lot more," he said.
Filling stomachs or trash bins?
Grassley said he's heard from parents who don't like the school meal changes.
"I've heard parents saying there's tremendous waste, and I had a superintendent at a town meeting who said, 'there's so much waste going to happen, that we're thinking about composting it and taking a picture at the end of the year to show federal government how much waste there is,'" Grassley said.
At Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars, cafeteria manager Robin Ellensohn said she isn't seeing more waste than other years.
Lubben, at LCS, said she expects there will be some more food waste than before.
Where she's seeing waste, though is in the food preparation and serving.
Everything from shredded cheese to condiments have to be weighed before being served, which means each student gets a plastic cup with those items in, Lubben explained.
Years ago, schools measured these items out, but went away from that because there was too much waste, she said.
"Now we're creating waste again. I don't understand it," she said.
Grassley said he's also hearing from people concerned about the waste beyond the lunchroom.
The USDA changes have created a "terrible amount of paperwork" for school lunch directors, he said.
Lubben explained the situation.
Schools will receive an extra 6 cents per meal per student once their week-by-week menus are approved by the state.
But that's not just a one-page menu.
"There are worksheets for all recipes, labels and nutritional information for each week," Lubben explained.
And there are different worksheets for different grade levels.
"This is more paperwork than I've ever done before," Lubben said, adding that she has been staying at work late to try to get more of it finished.
"It's crazy," she said. "It's two times as much paperwork."
Even with Lubben putting in more hours, the school hired Huenink to help make sure the paperwork is done right so LCS is in compliance.
Huenink spends between six and 12 hours each week at LCS, completing tasks including measuring calories, sodium, fat, and more per portion for each recipe.
Her hours at LCS will decrease as the school fully adapts to the new rules, she said.
What are schools doing who can't hire a dietician?
At Gehlen, the office staff is assisting with some paperwork, Ellensohn said.
"You have to keep labels off of everything you open and serve," she said.
Some schools are contracting out to food service companies to do the work that Huenink is doing.
Some are using the option this year of saving all their ingredient labels and sending them in to the state to be analyzed, Huenink said.
"For next year I'm really not sure what they're going to do," she said.
Ellensohn said the amount of paperwork and regulations has "gone overboard," especially dictating what color vegetables need to be served and how much of each food students can have each week.
"It's a lot more impossible to actually carry all that out than to sit in an office and make all the rules," she said.
She'd prefer to see more general guidelines from the USDA.
"There's not much freedom left in choosing your menus," she said.
And she'd prefer a lot less paperwork.
"I would honestly hate to even think how many hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars the government has wasted on these regulations and trying to enforce them," Ellensohn said. "I just think there would be better ways to spend money with the school lunch program."
Back to the cutting board?
U.S. Congressman Steve King has come out strongly against the USDA's new school lunch guidelines.
King is co-sponsoring the "No Hungry Kids Act," a bill that would repeal the USDA rule that created the new standards, prohibit the USDA creating calorie maximums, and protects parents' rights to send children to school with the foods of their choice.
"It would send the USDA back to the drawing board to write their rules again," he said.
He said he opposed the original legislation that allowed the USDA to write new school lunch guidelines because it was "written so loosely."
"It gave the federal government more power than it should have, but I didn't predict it would be this bad," King said. "They came to the conclusion that we need to put all kids in America on a diet because some are overweight."
In a news release about the bill, King called the USDA's guidelines "extreme calorie rationing."
The 850 calorie maximum for high school students isn't enough for a 250-pound football player who is training each day, he said.
King claims the reduced carbohydrate and meat portions are leaving students so hungry that by the end of the day, parents bring their children snacks "just to get them home or to sports."
And while students who have extra money can buy second portions of food, those who don't have extra money have to go without seconds, King said.
"It is stigmatizing kids on free and reduced lunch," he said.
King said he started to push against the USDA school lunch rules after constituents voiced their concerns to him.
"We started to hear from parents, and it wasn't just calls to our Washington office, I'd hear about it when I was talking to people after church and around the community," King said.
King's co-sponsored bill to repeal the USDA school lunch rules hasn't gained much traction yet. He said he has more than eight signatures in the House of Representatives, but believes it will make it to the floor to be debated.
"The issue is getting hotter across the country," he said.
In the meantime, he also feels that solving the problem of childhood and teenage obesity won't happen around the school lunch table.
"They are not getting fat on school lunch," he said.
Send a lunch bucket
Grassley hasn't been as vocally opposed to the new guidelines.
The U.S. Congress did give the USDA authority to re-write school lunch, he said.
"But here's one kind of general rule. It doesn't apply just to hot lunch programs," Grassley said. "I always find bureaucrats stretching the law as far as they want it to go and what they can get away with."
He said he thinks health-related education might be the best way to deal with the problems of youth being overweight and obese.
"Still, you can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," he said.
Grassley said he's listening to hear what constituents think of the changes.
"If a parent really wants to have a demonstration against it, send a lunch bucket to school with your kids with the food you want them to eat," he said.
To get the USDA to change its mind would take more than that, though, he said.
"What you have to have there is just an outpouring and demonstration of people not eating it (school lunch) and going hungry, or when they get done going across the street to the convenience store to buy a bunch of candy to get filled up," he said.
With enough anecdotes of that nature, it might be enough to get the USDA officials to change the requirements," he said.
"Or convince enough members of Congress that it's not a good policy, and have Congress force USDA to change its effort," Grassley said.
Tonya Huenink, registered dietician at Hy-Vee, is working with LCS to make sure the school meals are calorie-appropriate for each age group, according to the new USDA guidelines.
For parents who think their kids need more to eat, she suggests sending healthy, filling snacks.
Huenink shared this recipe for No Bake Energy Bars
No Bake Energy Bars
3/4 cup honey
1 cup natural peanut butter
1 cup vanilla whey protein powder
1 cup ground flaxseed
2 cups puffed cereal like Kashi Heart-to-Heart or Cheerios
1 cup chopped nuts (Tonya suggests raw almonds)
1 cup raisins
1. Stir together honey and peanut butter. Add in protein powder and stir until smooth.
2. Add flaxseed, cereal, nuts and raisins, and stir until well blended. (It's easiest to use your hands to mix!)
3. Coat a 9-by-9 inch pan with non-stick cooking spray, and press bar mixture firmly into pan.
4. Refrigerate for 1 hour and cut into 16 squares.
Approximate Nutrition Facts per serving: 280 calories, 32 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 15 g protein, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat