Students went back to school in Anderson County on Aug. 13. Students attended classes, ate lunch and went about the normal school activities, but something was noticeably missing: ketchup.
Signs were posted around the cafeteria to explain the favorite condiment's absence because of the unavailability of low sodium ketchup. Parents heard there was no ketchup in the school lunches and flooded the Anderson County school board office in Lawrenceburg with questions.
"They're micromanaging our children," said Paul Coffey, who has grandchildren in the school system. "A parent knows what's good for their child, and ketchup is not going to hurt them."
Ronnie Fields, Anderson County schools food service director, said it had more to do with the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed Congress in 2010. The act puts stringent requirements on schools meals, including allowable sodium content and overall calories of the meal. Fields said before the start of school all of the schools' recipes were fed into a compliance tool that makes sure the meals meet the federal requirements. He said all of the recipes were configured with low sodium ketchup, which has been out of stock since the start of school.
Low sodium ketchup packets are 10 calories and contain 25 mg of sodium. Regular ketchup packets are 11 calories and 85 mg of sodium.
Lucky for ketchup-loving students in the Purchase area, local schools do not foresee any ketchup casualties. In McCracken County schools, for example, food services factors in a 10-calorie packet of ketchup with 105 mg of sodium into just about every meal. Food services director Sara Jane Hedges said most days they also factor in the possibility of ranch dressing, as well as barbecue sauce on days when chicken nuggets are served.
Under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, school lunches are only allowed to have 650 calories for elementary students, 700 calories for middle school students and 850 for high school students.
Coffey argued that the school lunches under the federal regulations are so bland, and condiments like ketchup are needed to make the food edible.
The federal requirements also mandate that snack items and side dishes sold a la carte meet guidelines. Here are a few of the requirements: 230 mg or less of sodium per item served; 35 percent or less calories from total fat; snacks 230 mg or less of sodium per item served; food items must have less than 10 percent calories from saturated fats, 35 percent or less of weight from total sugar; and 50 percent of the breads and grains must be whole grains.
"A lot people don't realize how it's this complicated to feed kids," Fields said.
Fields also addressed rumors that the school district is trying keep students from bringing their lunch to increase school lunch participation.
"We'd never ban that," he said. "Kids are always welcome to bring their own lunches and condiments."
Alissa Vest, a senior at the high school, did just that. During the first weeks of school when there was no ketchup, Vest brought her own in. She said the condiment is a staple in her meals and she couldn't do without it.
As of Aug. 20 Fields said regular ketchup was available to students.
Coffey said he is "ecstatic" that ketchup is back in the cafeteria.
"Ketchup is an American institution," said Coffey.
Shelina McClain, food services director for Graves County schools, is thankful that they too have found a way to keep ketchup in their cafeterias.
"The kids love their ketchup," McClain said. "I wouldn't want to imagine what would happen if we took it away."
For Anderson County schools it took a few tweaks to the lunch recipes in the compliance tool to make the allowance for the extra sodium content in regular ketchup, but all is well now. Miles away in western Kentucky, Hedges feels their pain.
"When these guidelines started, there were many tears shed and long nights," she said. "It's complicated. A lot of people don't understand that there's a whole lot that goes behind that meal. I tell my staff, you have no idea how big of a role you play in this movement."
Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, contributed to this article.