MIAMI — Around him, many kids in the Sunset Park Elementary cafeteria in South Miami-Dade, Fla., were gingerly nibbling at fresh vegetables from the new salad bar, encouraged by hovering parent volunteers and teachers. But Manuel Rodriguez, 6, had his eyes on something else.
A plastic container, brought from home, contained a thick square of chocolate cake with a layer of white frosting. As he dug into the cake, he was asked if that was all he had for lunch. He shook his head somberly, pointing to a Pedialyte nutrition drink.
With one in three American children considered overweight or obese the federal government has launched a new campaign this school year to strengthen nutritional requirements for school lunches.
The move has been strongly championed by the White House, particularly first lady Michelle Obama, and it has sparked a backlash. In the politicization of nutrition, Republican stalwart Sarah Palin has defiantly served cookies to children. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh blames the Obamas for destroying Twinkies, while the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance persuaded Disney World to close down an anti-obesity exhibit.
In the case of school laws, the new standards emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk while limiting caloric intake.
The response, like a serving of succotash, has been mixed.
Many students were dismayed, at least initially. A poll taken by the Coral Gables High newspaper last fall found that 59 percent didn't like the new regulations. Editor Ali Stack said that "students are now used to the food," but miss Papa John's pizza. Overall, she said, attitudes about cafeteria offerings had not changed: "Gross" before and "gross" now.
Sabrina Rodriguez, editor of the Hialeah High newspaper, said most students "still did not like the new standards." They got used to it, she said, but most still throw out the vegetables.
Penny Parham, nutrition director for Miami-Dade schools, said the tales of more waste aren't supported by reports from field offices. In fact, she said increased numbers of elementary and middle school kids are eating cafeteria lunches this year, while high school participation remains about the same. Broward schools also report no waste increase.
The larger question is how much a school — or any institution outside the home — can alter eating patterns that many experts believe are deeply ingrained, starting from the earliest years. Many obesity experts believe changing those habits will take decades.
"Note that it took 50 years of anti-tobacco campaigns to lower smoking rates from 50 percent of the population to 20 percent," said James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition in Colorado.
"There's no question that schools can't fix everything," said Roland Sturm, a senior economist specializing in obesity issues at the California-based RAND Corp. Parents' influence remains "hugely important," he said, but "the school environment is an important norm-setter for healthy behavior."
The Obama administration has campaigned to reduce the nation's fat, which has been growing at an alarming rate. The percentage of kids aged 6-11 who are obese has more than doubled in the past three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese adolescents aged 12-19 have more than tripled. Extra pounds mean extra health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, adding expense to an industry that already swallows 20 percent of the American economy.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required schools to limit lunches to no more than 650 calories for elementary kids, 700 for middle schoolers and 850 for high schoolers. Students must be offered a vegetable, a fruit, a low-fat or non-fat milk, a protein and a grain. They must pick at least three, one of which must be a vegetable or a fruit. A student also could satisfy the fruit or veggie requirement by choosing a juice without added sugar.
When the standards kicked in last fall, there were a number of reports of students rebelling at being forced to eat vegetables. The New York Times found hundreds of kids in a Wisconsin school boycotting the cafeteria and students in a small town in western Kansas creating a parody video. (In it, athletes keel over in the gym for lack of nourishment and kids stash bags of chips in their lockers to keep from starving.)
Even Comedy Central's The Daily Show got into the act, showing a New York school waste can overflowing with vegetables.