By Toni Riley
Gone are the days when ketchup can be counted as a vegetable for a school lunch as it was in 1981 during the Regan administration. In Jan. 2012, the U. S. Department of Agriculture announced new school meal standards through The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.
The act, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, is designed to align school meals more closely with the nutritional needs of school children. It’s the first major change that the USDA has made in school meals in 15 years.
Through these changes, the USDA hopes to help raise a healthier generation of 32 million children who participate in the school meal program.
The National School Breakfast and Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
Under the new standards, meals are to be aligned with the latest in nutritional science along with real-world circumstances in schools.
The USDA did not come about these changes quickly or lightly. Schools were given a three-year period to implement the key changes, which began with the 2012-13 school year. Schools
focused on changes in lunches the first year, with most breakfast changes phased in during future years.
These healthier meal requirements have been a priority for the First Lady as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign. Mrs. Obama said, “As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home.”
Realistically for many children, the breakfast and lunch they eat at school is the best nutrition they receive all day. Many children consume at least half of their meals at school, and the food they eat at school may be the only meals they regularly eat. With more than 32 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program and more than 12 million participating in the School Breakfast Program, good nutrition at school is essential.
Any parent who has tried to change their child’s eating habits to eat healthier foods knows what a challenge it can be. Now, just think about teaching 7,200 children at lunch and 4,000 children at breakfast to eat healthy food, and it wasn’t an option. That was the task Sandra McIntosh, director of Christian County Food Service, had to tackle in 2012 when the USDA announced the standards for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“I didn’t know how we would do it, but I knew we would do it,” she said.
McIntosh now meets with three committees of cafeteria managers for elementary, middle and high schools to develop menus based on the mandated calorie counts for each age level. Menus follow a four-week cycle for lunch and a one-week cycle for breakfast.
Once the committee plans the meals, the menu and its proportions are entered into a computer menu analysis program that reports if the meals are in compliance with the standards. Calorie restrictions caused the most noticeable change in the meals — no dessert — but McIntosh found a frozen, 100 percent fruit juice that becomes slushy, and students take that as dessert instead.
The other big change was the whole-wheat requirement. This year all breads, including breading on chicken, must be 51 percent whole wheat.
Cafeteria cooks couldn’t continue to make their homemade rolls because they couldn’t ensure that the rolls were in compliance.
“We do very little scratch cooking,” McIntosh said. “We have to rely on our vendors to provide us with foods that will be in compliance.”
This year the amount of sodium has been reduced, primarily in canned vegetables.
As with any changes, educating school personnel, parents and students was essential. Heather Aubin Lancaster, director of communications/public relations for Christian County Public Schools, said a very concerted effort was made to help everyone prepare for big changes in school menus.
“We went through our normal media outlets with information about the changes,” Lancaster said, “but we also sent brochures and pamphlets about the new standards to school personnel and more to go home with the students.”
Even with all the changes, McIntosh is adamant that the children are eating better.
“Kids are eating more fruits and vegetables than ever,” McIntosh said. “They are eating more red (and) orange vegetables and dark greens.”
Students are now offered canned or fresh fruit at both breakfast and lunch, and the salads are made with Romaine lettuce, not Iceberg, increasing the nutritional value of the salads.
Another exciting note is the amount of food that is thrown away has not increased. That could be attributed to the “offer vs. serve” method, meaning there are no pre-made plates and students choose from what is offered and take what they want rather than have a prepared plate served to them.
While pizza and chicken nuggets are still the favorite menu items, it is obvious that public school children are eating healthier. McIntosh concluded, saying she really feels the kids have accepted the exploration of new foods. They now eat kiwi and have found that raw broccoli is fun to eat when dipped in fat-free ranch dressing.
Did you know?
This year all Christian County Public Schools are part of the USDA Community Eligibility program and all students will receive school meals at no charge.
School meal improvements
- Both fruits and vegetables served daily
- Only fat-free or low-fat dairy
- Increased whole grains
- Calories are regulated by the child’s age and portion control
- Reduced saturated fat and sodium
Christian County Public Schools meals by calories per age:
K-5 350-400 550-650
Middle 400-550 600-770
High 450-600 750-850