There's a showdown in progress at Rim Country Middle School, as a group of seventh-grade girls square off against changes in the school lunch menu designed to make meals more nutritious.
"We decided to go on strike," said three of the girls, excitedly completing each other's sentences and even talking in synch.
"Part of it is we don't like what's being served, but also we don't get enough," student Janell Blizzard said. "But most of all it's that they're running out."
The issues came to a head one day last week when the RCMS cafeteria ran out of the more popular of the day's two entrees, despite an indication how much needed to be prepared from the "lunch count" taken that morning.
"One selection was mac and cheese, and the other selection was an egg-salad sandwich," RCMS Principal Frank Larby said. "The kids made a run on the mac and cheese, and the cafeteria had to put out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then they ran out of peanut butter and jelly, and the kids didn't want to eat the egg salad. This is what triggered it."
The three girls, Janell Blizzard, Marylou Kesterson and Kaylynn Kincanon, teamed up with fellow seventh-graders Kyla Carey, Nikki Neumann and Alesha Fahnestock to take action.
"I met with these kids and told them, ‘If you're not disrupting others, if you're not breaking any school rules, if you're not interfering with the learning process, if you want to spend your lunch time sitting on the floor in the gym, OK, we'll let you do that,'" Larby said.
The principal also asked the students to draw up a list of foods they wanted to see more of.
"They came up with a big old list," he said.
Heading the list, the trio said in unison: "Pizza."
Then, in rapid-fire succession, they added chicken nuggets, mini corn dogs, cake and candy.
Therein lies the problem, according to Dan Bowditch, third-year food service supervisor for the Payson Unified School District, which has five kitchens either up and running or soon to be in the case of new kitchens nearing completion at Frontier Elementary School and Payson High School. Bowditch is charged with meeting federal guidelines so the district qualifies for reimbursement under the federally funded school lunch program.
"If it wasn't for the school lunch program and the reimbursements that I get, I don't know what we'd do," Bowditch said. "That's where a large portion of our money comes from."
Bowditch is looking into why the RCMS cafeteria ran out of food the day the six girls decided they'd had enough, and he thinks that's a fixable issue. But the subject of what gets served is another matter entirely.
In fact, Bowditch has introduced a new menu concept into PUSD schools this year, one that's based on sound nutritional information.
"Last March, an article appeared in The Arizona Republic saying that schools are failing nutritionally," he said.
Among the revelations in that article:
"According to recent state audits, 55 percent of Arizona schools do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for nutrients over a week's time. USDA standards spell out how much fat, calories, sodium, fiber and carbohydrates meals are allowed."
In July, a "model" nutrition policy for the state was completed. It concluded:
- Approximately 13 percent of school-age children are obese, and 15 percent are overweight.
- Between 56 and 85 percent of school-age children consume soda every day.
- Fifty-one percent of school-age children consume less than one serving of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Eighty-four percent of school-age children consume too much fat.
- If the rate of obesity continues to grow exponentially as it currently is in school-age children, the entire population of the planet will be obese by the year 2032.
That was enough for Bowditch.
"I've been here two years," he said. "I looked at our menus and had some experts look at them, and our menus were very heavy in fat content. We were probably in that group of schools that were failing nutritionally.
"The (federal government) has not made new menus mandatory, but it's coming. So I decided to go with the new menus this year."
Bowditch uses a new computer software program to develop the district's menus.
"Very simply put, the new menus are nutritionally driven," he said. "Over a week's period, menus are analyzed by computer software that has all the recipes and all the ingredients put in them.
"Take chicken nuggets, for instance," he said. "The new program will come back and tell you how many you can serve, what the fat content is that kids are getting, the calories, the calcium, iron, protein, vitamin A and C. So when you do nuggets as an entree, you have to do two more sides -- like milk and a cup of salad or a roll or something -- and those things have to fall within a nutritional range to be considered a reimbursable meal."
The catch is that items are starting to appear on the PUSD menus that the students would not choose if left to their own devices.
Students are seeing less pizza, lasagna, spaghetti, cheeseburgers, hot dogs and fries. New items that are being introduced for nutritional reasons include gyro, chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches, cold meat sandwiches like turkey with cheese, sweet and sour chicken, mashed potatoes, refried beans, rice, macaroni salad, spanish rice, green beans and mixed vegetables.
Bowditch realizes that he might not be the most popular man on the school's campuses these days, but he also knows he can sleep better at night.
"We are still a school, and part of the school is learning, and if they're gong to eat school meals they ought to learn to eat healthy meals," he said. "I don't mean to be insensitive, harsh or cold, but if you give kids what they want they'd eat chicken nuggets and pizza every day and it's not good for them."
Bowditch has met with the six RCMS girls, and he is willing to work with students to accommodate their preferences within the bounds of nutrition.
The issue of the egg-salad sandwiches is a case in point. Bowditch doesn't think his cafeterias will be serving egg salad anytime soon, but he plans to stay on the nutritional high road.
"I will defend until they throw me out or I die that this is the right thing to do," he said. "Kids complain about homework, too."