Last school year, the Eastport-South Manor district jettisoned use of pump dispensers for ketchup and other condiments. This week, the word went out to families that two 9-gram packets per meal is students' max for such stuff.
Assistant Superintendent Timothy Laube, in a letter to families dated Tuesday, said the system is limiting kids' consumption of condiments in a nod to healthier eating and stricter adherence to federal and state nutrition guidelines.
"Condiments have little or no nutritional value and only increase student sodium and sugar intake," Laube wrote, noting that the government entities "consider a school at high nutritional risk if it allows students access to unlimited amounts of condiments."
The district switched last year from having pump dispensers for condiments to the small packets, Laube said Thursday.
"I haven't seen any kids complaining about ketchup, and I talk to the cashier staff and the kids don't seem to have an issue with it," he said of the limitation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and New York State "warn schools against providing non-portion-controlled bulk condiments to students as this can lead to students taking an excessive amount of product," his letter said.
The change from pumps to packets coincided with the 3,200-student system's switch to a different vendor for its food service, Whitsons Culinary Group. Whitsons did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday.
Board member Jeff Goldhammer of Manorville, who has three children in district schools, said the aim is to follow guidelines for healthy meals, and Whitsons adheres closely to government regulations, meaning a tightening on availability of condiments.
"I can understand it seems like a silly issue, but kids are only supposed to have a certain amount of calories," said Goldhammer, 35, whose children are in the first, third and fifth grades."It's not really a big deal to my kids."
Parents can send children to school with extra condiments, he added — a point that Laube also made in his letter.
The federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 sets sodium and calorie limits in the meal pattern that limit the quantities of condiments. Ketchup must be included in the calculations for both calories and sodium for the lunch meal, which limits the portion that students can receive to be in compliance.
At Hofstra University, anthropology professor Sharryn Kasmir said the issue can be used as a teachable moment for students. Kasmir is director of food studies at the university and also teaches about food and culture,
"I think that any enforced change in a school menu should always be accompanied by a larger discussion on how to get students involved in shaping their own diet," Kasmir said.
One local parent read the school district's letter on his cellphone and said he thinks “it's a little ridiculous.”
“Kids should be allowed to have ketchup. Just let them eat their ketchup," Tim Petrou, 35, who has a child in seventh grade, said in an interview.
“I get what they are trying to do, but limiting ketchup packets — it’s almost unheard of," he said.
Jennifer Campos, 25, a 2010 graduate of the district, said she thinks kids who want more ketchup simply will bring it to school.
She noticed changes in the food service when she was a student.
“When I was first there, they had slushies and cookies and cinnamon buns, and later on they started to limit it,” Campos said.