Vasu Shah, an assistant at the Melican Middle School cafeteria, says she hasn't seen a more drastic change in her 23 years on the job.
School cafeterias and food directors all agree; the government mandates have never been more pronounced than this school year.
Last year, kids could grab a package of Pop Tarts out of one of the vending machines at Algonquin Regional High School. Two in a pack, it was the kind of Pop Tarts most of us remember growing up on. You could pick up a large coffee at the breakfast bar, too, before classes started.
This year, the coffee's gone. And while the Pop Tarts are still an option, that option is a 50 percent whole wheat-version, one tart per pack. And it's more expensive than last year. The vending machines are now filled with only water, even the Gatorade (the last to hang on) has been eliminated.
There are still hot dogs, and chocolate milk, but it's oh so different from the sloppy joe and tater tot meal most of us got as kids.
The Northborough schools are, like schools across the country, facing the first major changes they have seen to the food program in 15 years with directives found in the "National School Lunch Program."
Maura Feeley, the Northborough-Southborough public schools food director, was hired midway through last school season, leaving her little time to acclimate to the drastic changes.
"A lot has changed as far as mandates go," she said. "One of the challenges have is coming in mid-year last year, I didn't get a couple of years jump on creating change. I'm trying to do it slowly."
The changes include serving sizes as well as nutritional content of all the fods, including "competitive foods," which are a la carte options and bake sales.
While the standard school lunch is mandated by federal law, the "competitive foods" is mandated by state law.
"Massachusetts came up with some pretty strict guidelines," said Feeley. "Our vending machines had to be in compliance with certain snack products. We can sell a la carte items, but there are only baked chips, for instance. So not only are there the school lunch standards, but now the federal government is going to come out with their own standards, too, and I have no idea what that will look like."
Feeley said it's hard to tell how the changes have affected sales at the schools. Numbers, she said, are just coming in from September. A drastic reduction in profit can be contributed to eliminating the breakfast program Algonquin once had.
"Through the competitive foods bill, we can't sell caffeine," said Feeley. "We did a couple hundred dollars in a fifteen minute period selling coffee. We had to remove that. We can only sell a 1.8 ounce muffin in a cellophane wrapper, and no caffeine. After the changes, it wasn't even covering the cost of our inventory."
Another significant difference this year applies to vending machines.
"Basically, you can only sell bottled water," said Feeley.
While soda was nixed a few years ago, Gatorade was cut out within the last year.
"We used to sell snacks every day and it was a big source of revenue," said Feeley. "We aren't doing that. They kids are saying, 'We used to get two Pop Tars and now we get one and it costs more.'"
The cost of a hot lunch went up 25 cents this year, the first time in four years in the Northborough schools. School lunch is now $2.75.
The increase, Feeley said, coincides with the mandates.
"I'm getting less food for more money," she said. "And we're doing far more fresh foods so it's costing us more. We also had to absorb the increased cost of labor and food."
Chocolate milk, long a fixture on the lunchline at schools, needed tweaking before it could be accepted this year, too. Before it could be sold this year, chocolate milk had to be reformulated to fit the government standard. Under the state law, Massachusetts dictates the amount of sugar content that can be accepted.
Garelick Farms, which is Northborough schools' milk vendor, anticipated having to reformulate the chocolate milk for schools, and did so, coming up with a 70 percent sugar free version.
"It's basically skim milk with chocolate in it," said Feeley. "Now next year, the sugar level can't be greater than plain milk. They have to formulate this again, and they know this. God knows what it will taste like."
Feeley said the mandates have forced school workers to look at lunch in an entirely different way than they had; concerns used to be over serving a "minimum" and now it's a "maximum."
Last week, to celebrate "Food Day" across the commonwealth, the Melican School served up a "Thanksgiving" dinner, compete with squash, fresh turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, a roll and apples donated by Tougas Farm.
Nancy Casaceli, manager, said the kids are adjusting to the changes, and so is the staff.
"We took baby steps, and we're adjusting," said Casaceli, who has been at the school for eight years. "We offer a lot of fruits and veggies, and if the kids take everything that is offered, it's very filling. A lot of them are excited about it."
"It has to fall into a formulaic range," said Feeley. "It is very specific. You have to have so many green vegetables per week, fruits and so on. There is a solid count on what should be offered and served that is very specific to each week."
Schools can serve up to ten ounces of protein per week, which makes rationing a challenge compared to previous years.
"It's two ounces of protein per day," said Feeley. "So we have to be creative in our menu planning. You have to market so the kids don't feel they are missing something. Now, meatballs come in once-ounce sizes. Can you imagine getting two meatballs on a plate? It's a balance. It's balancing out your week, and it's a lot of work. This is pushing food directors to be more of a dietician. We know more than we ever did before."
Feeley said she's hesitant to provide a percentage guess on how many students now bring their lunch because of the changes. At the middle schools - both Melican and Lincoln - Feeley said the new concept has brought some excitement to lunch. A mini model of the high school concept, there are now hot and cold lunch lines, so students can choose salads instead of a hot lunch.
"We're taking this concept slowly," said Feeley.
Though the changes have been stressful on the food service staff, they've risen to the challenge, Feeley said. The changes have forced staff to look at food differently, become more creative, and find different ways to balance the dishes.
"We offer wholesome meals and we're moving toward scratch cooking as much as possible," said Feeley. "I think we're doing a pretty good job."