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BURLEY | The food doesn't taste good -- and there's not enough of it.

That may sound like a line from Woody Allen, but it's serious business in schools nowadays, as federal mandates have led to school lunches that few want to eat.

At Burley High School, one-fourth of students who ate school lunches every day have stepped out of the cafeteria line.

Those 100 teenagers now bring sack lunches, dash off campus for fast food or skip the meal altogether.

Steve Wells lunched there to see what his son was complaining about.

“It was not edible. It was a greasy little hot pocket," Wells said. "When we were little, everything at school was homemade.”

In July, new federal guidelines kicked in, lowering sodium levels based on the student’s age and requiring that all grains be at least 50 percent whole.

Such standards, first rolled out in 2012, were a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Guidelines already in effect limit calories based on age, offer students fruits and vegetables daily, limit milk with meals and restrict it to low-fat or fat-free.

The USDA Smart Snacks guidelines also took effect in July, and all foods that didn't meet them were removed from vending machines. Food truck vendors whose products didn't measure up were banned from school property.

The Smart Snacks rules let each state choose how many noncompliant food fundraisers to allow. Idaho took the most lenient route, exempting 10 fundraisers per school each year.

The federal guidelines are healthy but come with this rub: They won't help if they drive students away from school lunch.

The dwindling number of diners at Burley High also could jeopardize the school's lunch budget, most of which comes from federal reimbursements based on how many lunches are served, said Angela Rodriquez, Cassia County schools food service director.

The school already has dropped its brown bag option, which let students grab school lunch on the run. And it will discontinue one of its entrée options this month.

The guideline intentions are good but "are having somewhat of a domino effect," said school district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield. 

Another reason for the shrinking lunch crowd, Rodriquez said, is the school's new “power hour,” which provides a full lunch hour so students have time to get extra help with studies or attend school club meetings.

That also gives students time to head out for fast food. “A lot of other students say they don’t want to stand in line,” she said.

Ana Inzunza, 16, used to eat school lunches every day but now brings lunch or skips it.

The school lunch "doesn't taste as good," she said. “It’s missing flavor and tastes plain.”

Wells said both his children deem the lunches "flavorless."

His daughter perceives the vending machine snacks as "Jenny Craig" diet food, he said. She attends White Pine Intermediate School for grades four through six.

Not all students are complaining, though.

Natalie Christensen, 18, says she eats school lunch often.

“I think it’s pretty good. There are not a lot of leftovers at home, so I stay here and eat,” she said.

Landen Gunnell, 16, said he likes school lunch but only eats it once a week. “It’s not enough food,” he said.

Other days, he darts off with friends to fast-food joints.

“I eat off campus because I enjoy eating out with friends and escaping from school.”

When it baked its own bread, the high school had 600 students eating school lunch daily, compared with 300 now, Rodriquez said.

Kitchen staff experimented with whole-wheat recipes, but students didn't like the bread. So now the school buys most of its breads and has cut back on its cooking.

Most entrees are purchased frozen from vendors that manufacture the products to meet the guidelines.

“There are a lot of challenges. The students have noticed there is not as much flavor in the food,” said Rodriquez. “We don’t want to take away the nutritional value of the meal, but we don’t want to lose kids eating lunch either.”

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The cooks this month will introduce lasagna rolls and chili with half a maple bar. They can only serve one dessert a week to keep calorie counts in check, and some weeks they forgo it altogether.

Many school districts have been proactive in adopting the guidelines.

Kitchen staffs in the Twin Falls School District have developed bread recipes that appeal to students by using white-colored wheat flour so breads are not so dark and by letting the dough rise more, said Lori Rieth, director of the food service program.

“There’s a fine art in tweaking the recipe so it comes out fluffy.”

The district served 265 more meals a day in September than last year, she said.

It does buy some bread from vendors, and the sodium restrictions aren't "always easy to meet," Rieth said. “We are trying to do more with herbs or a salt substitute.” 

Marti Martsch, kitchen manager at Dworshak Elementary in Burley, returned to the school lunch program after working elsewhere for 1½ years.

“There are a lot more fruits and vegetables now,” Martsch said, and only about 20 percent of the 600 students bring a sack lunch.

But American children didn't become obese by eating school lunch, Martsch said. Their activity level is to blame.

And, she noted, “It probably doesn’t help that some of these kids are coming home from school starving because they didn’t get enough to eat at lunch and then binging on a bag of chips.”

Jami Titus and her two children ate a lunch of chili and a school-made, whole-wheat cinnamon roll Sept. 30 at Dworshak.

Her third-grader, Conner Clark, gave it a thumbs-up.

She said her children eat breakfast and lunch at the school and a snack on the way there but come home “starving” each day.

“My kids eat six times a day when they are home,” she said.

Wells said his high-school son, who plays several sports and lifts weights after school, might not be getting enough calories from the school lunch.

“I have very active kids. They are treating a small percentage of obese kids or those fighting diabetes by penalizing everyone,” he said.

Burley High Athletic Director and teacher Gordon Kerbs agreed, saying the calories are probably inadequate for many students.

As a cafeteria monitor, he eats there daily.

“What I’m seeing is there is not as much choice anymore,” Kerbs said. “I think the food is good; there’s just not enough of it.”

Russ Taylor said the Minidoka County School District already was in compliance with the guidelines when he took over as food service director a few months ago.

“Nobody has come to me complaining. But just looking at things, it seems that there are not enough calories for some students,” said Taylor.

Charlene Bartlome, kitchen manager at Burley High, said she hasn't heard that complaint from students, but she has noticed “ball players” buying sandwiches from a food truck and bringing them into the cafeteria to eat with the school meal.

Other students will pay for two meals and go through the food line twice or bring snacks from home, she said.

“We can’t regulate what foods the kids are bringing to the school,” said Rodriquez.

Although the students are required to take a certain number of offerings in the lunch line, they don't have to eat them, she said.

But for students whose families rely on free or reduced-cost lunches, not eating at school might mean no lunch at all.

“We have hungry children in our district, and this may be the one place they get a healthy meal,” Critchfield said.

As the guidelines get more restrictive, some districts have opted out of the federal lunch program, including nine high schools in the upscale Douglas County, Colo., school district in July, The Denver Post reported.

Other districts across the country have opted out, too, and some have opted back in afterwards. But some districts don't have a choice.

The Jerome County School District couldn't operate a food program without federal funds, said Carolyn Sullivan, food service director.

“We have too high a percentage of free and reduced-price lunches,” she said. “Everyone would have to pay for lunch. I’m not sure what district would be able to do that.”

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