New school meal guidelines can be complicated, yet beneficial

jmink@macon.comApril 6, 2013 

  • School lunch requirements
    Required calories:
    Grades K-5: 550 to 650 a day
    Grades 6-8: 600 to 700 a day
    Grades 9-12: 750 to 850 a day

    Fruits:
    K-5: 2.5 cups a week
    6-8: 2.5 cups a week
    9-12: 5 cups a week

    Vegetables:
    K-5: 3.75 cups a week
    6-8: 3.75 cups a week
    9-12: 5 cups a week

    Grains:
    K-5: 8 to 9 ounces a week
    6-8: 8 to 10 ounces a week
    9-12: 10 to 12 ounces a week

    Meats:
    K-5: 8 to 10 ounces a week
    6-8: 9 to 10 ounces a week
    9-12: 10 to 12 ounces a week

    Milk:
    All students: 5 cups a week

    Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Sample school lunch menu

    Elementary school:
    • Grilled chicken
    • Ground beef pizza
    • Steamed broccoli
    • Yam patties
    • Fresh fruit or fruit cup
    • Choice of milk

    Middle and high schools:
    • Hamburger with lettuce and tomato
    • Chicken fajita
    • Oven-baked sweet potato fries
    • Red beans
    • Salad bar
    • Choice of fruit

    Source: www.peachschools.org

FORT VALLEY -- Terance Johnson walks through the lunch line at Trojan Academy, scooping fruits and piling his plate with vegetables. It’s a shift from the way lunch used to be, when students were handed fried and canned foods.

“My family has been telling me I’m losing weight,” Terance, 14, a freshman, said as he sprinkled bits of ham on his salad.

It’s one benefit, officials say, of new U.S. Department of Agriculture school meal guidelines, which have forced students to change the way they eat and cafeteria workers to change the way they cook and serve food. Over the past few months, school officials have been adopting and implementing the new rules, which can be complicated and costly.

Now schools are preparing for the new breakfast guidelines, which will go into effect next school year, and some are applying for grants to help implement and educate students about the new rules.

“The goal is to help reduce obesity while giving children the opportunity to eat food that they wouldn’t ordinarily eat,” said TiSharkie Allen, nutrition director for Peach County schools.

In Houston County, nutrition workers were expecting the new guidelines and already have been enforcing many of them for the past few years, said Shana Wood, school nutrition coordinator.

The same is true for Bibb County, where officials decided to change school meal menus in August 2011 to prepare for the new guidelines, said Cleta Long, Bibb nutrition director.

“We were ahead of the curve,” she said.

The guidelines

In a nutshell, the new rules require schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk; reduce the levels of sodium and fat in foods; and make sure students get a certain number of calories based on their ages.

But, on a daily basis, those rules are much more complex.

Cafeteria workers must make sure students get so many cups of fruits, vegetables and milk and that the food is prepared correctly to meet calorie and fat requirements. Those requirements are further broken down into certain amounts of leafy greens, beans, peas, orange or red vegetables, and other specifications.

Additionally, cafeteria workers have been required to serve a certain number of ounces of meats and grains, a rule that has proven to be complicated, nutrition directors say.

To meet those requirements, cafeterias have been forced to decrease some portion sizes. For example, they might not be able to offer daily sandwiches, because that would be too much grain, or cheese in the salad bar due to protein requirements, Wood said.

“The maximum grain and wheat limits have limited the flexibility of our menu planning,” she said.

The cafeteria staff has been putting in extra work to meet the new rules.

Even though Bibb cafeterias switched more than a year ago to serving whole grains and more fruits and vegetables, there still was some work to do this year to meet the guidelines. For example, cafeteria workers adjusted the amount of food served to comply with the strict measurements, Long said.

Nutrition directors carefully plan each meal, and cafeteria workers serve food in measured cups. They bake and grill, which takes longer than dropping them in frying oil, they say.

“Once they took fried foods out, it made a huge, huge difference” in the way foods are prepared, said Pennie Wade, cafeteria manager at Trojan Academy.

Students can get as many fruits and vegetables as they want -- as long as they get the minimum amount. If they do not get the proper amount of food, cafeteria clerks make the students get back in line.

Costs

If students still do not take the required amount of food, they have to pay $2.20 for their meal -- even if they qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch -- and the school does not get reimbursed for the meal. They can also purchase individual items. Still, cafeteria workers discourage students from opting out of the requirements, Allen said.

The school nutrition program relies on federal revenue to cover all costs -- from kitchen equipment to employee salaries -- and that revenue is based on the number of meals served each day, Wood said.

Schools receive $2.88 in government funding for each free meal, $2.48 for reduced-priced meals and 29 cents for paid meals, Allen said.

“It’s what gives money back to our programs, and that’s how we function,” she said.

While federal nutrition funding is exempt from cuts under sequestration, the new guidelines incur both administrative and additional food costs.

“Fresh produce and whole grain items cost more,” Wood said.

It has been a tough year for farmers, who have grappled with uncooperative weather. Those weather factors increase the price of produce, something that nutrition directors keep track of, especially when purchasing extra fruits and vegetables, Long said.

And there are additional administrative costs, as the new guidelines require constant planning, monitoring and analyzing to make sure schools are following the rules, Wood said.

School districts submit documents to the USDA that show whether they are following the guidelines. If the USDA approves the documents, the district gets additional federal funds to help cover the extra costs to purchase and prepare new foods. Those additional funds equal an extra 6 cents per meal, Long said.

“But every cent helps,” she said.

Therefore, cafeteria clerks keep a close watch on the types of foods on students’ lunch trays. If students have special nutrition needs -- such as diabetes -- officials work with parents to plan meals for that student, Allen said.

The process was a little tricky at first. Some students complained about getting foods they did not want, and some were constantly being sent back through the line.

“They don’t sit down with that tray unless they have what they are required to have,” Wade said.

Students are starting to learn the new guidelines, but a handful still are turned away at the cash register.

“Constantly, you see kids going back through the line,” said Andrea Cervantes, 15, a freshman at Trojan Academy.

Grants and projects

The biggest challenge is encouraging students to want to take the vegetables, Allen said. And when students are required to take food they do not want, waste accumulates.

“There is an amount of plate waste,” Allen said. “We’ve lost money with plate waste.”

While Wade says she does not see too much waste in her cafeteria, elementary students tend to waste a significant amount of fruits and vegetables, Allen said.

“I don’t like having to get a fruit and vegetable,” said Jason Butcher, 14, a student at Trojan Academy. “I just pick them up, so I can get out of line.”

In Bibb County, while clerks often have to encourage students to get enough fruits and vegetables, students are able to choose the foods they want, and waste does not seem to be an issue, Long said.

“We haven’t seen that here,” she said. “And we haven’t seen push-back on not taking items.”

School districts in other states are considering installing food composts and turning their cafeteria waste into fertilizer for school gardens.

There are about eight gardens at individual schools in Bibb County. Students help grow the gardens, and the produce is used in school cafeterias, Long said.

In Peach County, officials recently snagged a USDA grant they hope will help educate students about the food they eat. The county is implementing a $100,000 Farms to Schools grant that will allow schools to purchase locally grown produce and introduce students to unique fruits and vegetables. Additionally, students will take field trips to local farms and grow school gardens.

That portion of the two-year grant will start in May. For now, officials are training cafeteria workers to prepare the new foods. For example, they recently learned how to cook butternut and acorn squash.

“We have never served any of that,” Wade said.

The district recently applied for a state Fruit and Vegetables Grant, which would give elementary schools money to purchase fruits and vegetables for afternoon snacks, Allen said.

About 18 schools in Bibb County take part in that grant, and the nutrition department is planning to dedicate an entire week next school year to serving all Georgia-grown products in its cafeteria, Long said.

In Houston County, the school nutrition program requires that a certain number of nutrition educational lessons are taught each year.

“We believe that due to this huge educational effort, many students already choose to eat fruits and vegetables offered in our lunchrooms,” Wood said.

And while the new guidelines can be complicated and costly, school officials agree that healthier food options are a plus for students.

“We’re kind of reteaching them to eat,” Wade said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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