Hamilton County school cafeterias serves about 26,000 school lunches each day. Nationally, USDA's school lunch program serves nearly 32 million students daily — about 5.2 billion lunches each year.
Sources: USDA and Hamilton County school nutrition department
The loss of the chicken sandwich was perhaps the toughest to swallow.
The breaded sandwich was something of a legend in high school cafeterias across Hamilton County. But the former menu mainstay was one of the first -- and possibly most noticeable -- victim of federal legislation that mandated sweeping new regulations on school lunches.
The chicken made one of its rare appearances in local cafeterias last week. And at East Hamilton Middle-High, the county's largest school, the beef teriyaki didn't stand a chance.
Cafeteria manager Cathie Vandemark had several hundred chicken patties and buns ready, anticipating the crowd of high schoolers.
"Once they find out, they'll start flocking," she said.
Flock they did. Many students made a beeline for the sandwich lines -- pointing to the change that's happened in lunchrooms across the country this fall. What used to be a staple of the local high school diet has now become a rare treat.
Across the nation, students and parents are protesting the new nutritional standards since the school lunch program was changed this year. In an attempt to curb childhood obesity, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act limits how much and what kind of grains can be served, ups the daily servings of fruits and vegetables and puts strict limits on calories, salt, fats and sugars. The USDA regulates all school lunch programs that participate in federal free- and reduced-lunch programs.
Complaints have varied, with some students saying the new meals are too bland and others saying there just isn't enough food anymore.
Wisconsin students have staged a brown bag lunch boycott and high school students and teachers in Kansas produced the YouTube music video, "We are Hungry." It took little time for the politicizing of the new standards, which were championed by first lady Michelle Obama and signed into law by the president.
Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., are co-sponsoring the "No Hungry Kids Act," which would roll back the new regulations. In a statement last month, King described the current USDA regulations as a "misguided nanny state."
"Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want," King said.
Locally, reaction is mixed.
Many high school students miss their near-daily dose of chicken sandwiches, which schools can only serve a few times a month now because of new bread limitations and other regulations. But some students appreciate the extra fruit offerings while others don't even notice that anything has changed.
East Hamilton eighth-grader Pamela Slack has noticed a change.
"It almost makes you feel like you can't eat it," she said. "Everybody feels like the food is bland."
Tyler Blum noticed changes in portions.
"They just got a little bit smaller," he said. "It's mostly the same stuff."
Junior Hunter Parker is unstirred by the changes. "No different," he said.
His biggest problem is time. With an 11 a.m. lunch and football practice from 2:45 to about 6 p.m. each day, he gets hungry well before dinner time.
"I'm starving right away after practice," he said.
At East Hamilton, cafeteria workers serve more than 1,000 lunches and 1,500 a la carte items each day between 9:50 a.m. and 1 p.m. in multiple shifts of students. Though some students at the school have complained, officials say the cumbersome changes are beneficial. Students are getting more whole grains and more servings of fruits and vegetables.
"I think the benefits outweigh the negatives greatly," said Vandemark, the cafeteria manager.
Carolyn Childs, director of the county's school nutrition department, said she has received some student and parent complaints, most from high schools. The youngest students don't seem to notice or mind as much, she said.
But portion size is a common point of criticism. The guidelines set caloric and other limits based on age groups and don't take a student's size or weight into consideration. So the football linemen get the same amount of food as the cheerleaders.
Childs said she's heard anecdotally that the new standards have led to more wasted food now that schools are required to give more fruit and veggie helpings.
The complex rules require certain amounts of green leafy vegetables, red and orange vegetables and legumes while limiting the servings of starchy vegetables. That's caused some unusual meal pairings, Childs said, such as serving pinto beans with corn dogs.
The additional fruit and vegetable helpings are a welcomed addition, she said, but the array of other rules makes record keeping and menu planning a logistical challenge.
Mostly, it's a case of too many changes too soon, she said.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...