Breakfast for Eden Prairie (Eden Prairie, Minn.) senior center Tony Yost typically consists of a banana, an orange, a glass of milk, a breakfast sandwich and a couple of waffles.
For lunch, he usually eats whatever the school cafeteria serves. That used to be enough for Yost to maintain his 6-foot-2, 240-pound playing weight. Not anymore.
Thanks to standards championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school lunches now have calorie limits. For grades 9-12, the range is 750-850 calories. And for athletes like Yost, that’s simply not enough to get through the rest of the school day plus practice.
“I very rarely packed snacks last year,” Yost said. “But this year I pack one every other day.”
Yost isn’t alone. Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said the USDA has heard the same thing from many other athletes.
“Those children do need more calories,” she said. “But every child in school is not a linebacker, and we shouldn’t have every child in school eating as if they were.”
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Thornton says the purpose of the lunch rules is to ensure what’s served is as healthy as possible and to show students the kinds of foods they should consume. Another important goal is to help students understand proper portions.
While the intentions are clearly good, experts have issues with the one-size-fits-all mentality.
“The USDA meals aren’t designed to feed athletes who are performing three to four hours of exercise a day,” said Wesley Delbridge, a food and nutrition supervisor and a registered dietitian for Chandler Unified School District in Arizona.
While local food authorities decide what specific foods to serve and how to prepare them, every menu must increase offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Each meal must also include a minimum of two ounces of meat or meat alternative.
At Centennial (Circle Pines, Minn.), lunch may consist of 6-7 small pieces of sweet and sour chicken with about a cup of brown rice and either a fruit or vegetable. Or it may be whole-wheat pizza.
“It’s like half the size of what is was last year,” said Jenna Roering, a senior soccer player at Centennial. “The portion sizes have really gone down. People at my school aren’t very happy.”
Not happy is an understatement. Student-athletes nationwide are rebelling against the guidelines.
Students at Wallace County (Sharon Springs, Kan.) parodied Fun.’s “We Are Young” with an aptly named video, “We Are Hungry" (below). In it, athletes from a variety of sports collapse during practice.
At Centennial, Roering says her classmates have encouraged each other via Facebook to bring lunches from home. Roering still typically relies on buying school lunch because she doesn’t always have time to make her own lunch at home.
Like Yost, Roering has started bringing snacks to school as well as money to buy extra fruit, milk or sandwiches. Roering also keeps milk and cereal in her coach’s office.
The Chandler Unified School District in Arizona has attempted to combat this issue by making grab-and-go meals available to students. The meals are designed based on goals — strength, endurance and recovery.
Delbridge says these meals have no calorie restrictions and are available throughout the day. Some of the items in the grab-and-go meals include protein bars and hard-boiled eggs.
Ultimately, the key for athletes is to not be overly reliant on one meal for all of their fuel, according to Thornton.
“To be a successful athlete, they need to eat like they’re a successful athlete and make sure the calories they consume are high in nutritive value, not just empty calories,” Thornton said.