"Over 98 percent of our kids eat lunch here every day," said East Side High School Principal Randy Grierson.
According to an article by The Associated Press, after just one year, some schools around the country are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money."
A representative from the Mississippi Department of Education said, "The new requirements depend on how creative the cafeteria manager is — more fruit and veggies, less fried foods."
In some schools around the country student athletes complained they weren’t getting enough calories to stay full during the day and then have hours of practice after school.
"That's an excuse,” said Grierson. “Everything is mandated by the federal government. Is it the calories they choose to eat? Possibly not. Are there enough calories on the meal lines to get them through football practice? Absolutely. They provide plenty of fruit and vegetables and usually two options of an entrée."
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
Federal officials say they don't have exact numbers but have seen isolated reports of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food.
Districts that rejected the program say the reimbursement was not enough to offset losses from students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.
"Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat," said Catlin, Ill., Superintendent Gary Lewis, whose district saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales, translating to $30,000 lost under the program last year.
"So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."
In upstate New York, a few districts have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red.
Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year after students repeatedly complained about the small portions and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.
Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines. Voorheesville's chef began serving such dishes as salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, pasta with chicken and mushrooms, and a panini with chicken, red peppers and cheese.
In Catlin, soups and fish sticks will return to the menu this year, and the hamburger lunch will come with yogurt and a banana — not one or the other, like last year.
Nationally, about 31 million students participated in the guidelines that took effect last fall under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which oversees the program, said she is aware of reports of districts quitting but is still optimistic about the program's long-term prospects.
"The vast majority of schools across the country are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, which is so important to help all our nation's children lead healthier lives," Thornton said.
"Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn," she said.
The agency had not determined how many districts have dropped out, Thornton said, cautioning that "the numbers that have threatened to drop and the ones that actually have dropped are quite different."
The School Nutrition Association found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move.
Not every district can afford to quit. The National School Lunch Program provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor youngsters.
The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetables be served daily. A typical elementary school meal under the program consisted of whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and 1 percent milk.
In December, the Agriculture Department, responding to complaints that kids weren't getting enough to eat, relaxed the 2-ounce-per-day limit on grains and meats while keeping the calorie limits.