BY ROXI REJALI
Have you been to a school cafeteria lately?
The menu choices might surprise you: salad bars, black-bean salsa and pizza with whole-wheat crust.
They’re designed to meet new federal nutrition standards that have shrunk portion sizes, trimmed fat and sodium, and increased fruits and vegetables.
Familiar cafeteria items like corn dogs, chow mein and chicken nuggets are still on many menus, but they‘ve been modified to meet the new guidelines, which took effect in the 2012-13 school year.
Standards set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 aim to stem the epidemic of childhood obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Seventeen percent of children are obese and the obesity rate has tripled since 1980, federal data show.
The national school lunch program feeds more than 31 million children. School districts must meet federal nutrition standards to receive meal subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Not everybody is on board with the new food rules.
Across the country, news reports showed that some older students protested the new meal plans, complaining that the smaller portions weren’t big enough for active students. Students in Kansas produced a popular YouTube video titled “We Are Hungry.”
In Minnesota, school-lunch participation dropped 3.7 percent last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
State officials are analyzing data to understand reasons for the decline, said Deb Lukkonen, the department’s supervisor for school nutrition programs. She acknowledges that the drop may be partly due to changes in nutrition standards, but expects participation to rebound this year as students adjust to the new choices.
“Absolutely, there were some challenges at the beginning of last school year, from a lot of things,” she said. “The bottom line was, we were making meals healthier for kids. How can you argue with that?”
Middle-school and high-school students in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district had an especially hard time adjusting to the new meal rules, said Wendy Knight, food and nutrition services coordinator.
Under the new standards, garlic bread could no longer be served with spaghetti because of limits on calories and carbohydrates, Knight said. Students weren’t happy when they were told they could replace the garlic bread with fruits and vegetables, she said.
“They wanted their garlic bread back and they didn’t want to have to take fruits and vegetables,” she said.
While Knight supports the goal of healthy meals for students, she’s concerned about the impact on the district’s food-service budget. Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the district served 6 percent fewer meals, resulting in a $246,000 loss of revenue, Knight said.
Knight received ”many, many” phone calls from parents last year, complaining that their children were still hungry after eating the smaller portions. Many of the students were athletes.
School board chairman Rob Duchscher said he heard stories about students tossing uneaten cafeteria food into garbage cans and bringing bag lunches from home.
The combination of smaller portion sizes and meal price increases may have caused students to drop school lunches, Duchscher said.
Ten-cent price increases two years in a row means that elementary students will pay $2.30 for lunch, while high-school students will pay $2.45 in the 2013-2014 school year.
The price increases were mandated by USDA. By requiring all school districts to charge an amount closer to the “full lunch price” set by USDA, the increases aim to strengthen the districts’ financial standing and fund improvements required by the new nutrition standards, according to agency documents.
Despite the drop in school-meal revenue, the district has no plans to abandon its meal program, Duchscher said.
Last year’s changes didn’t have the same impact on all Dakota County school districts.
In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district, participation in the lunch program grew 4.1 percent last year, said Roxanne Williams, food and nutrition services director.
“We knew the regulations were coming and we started a year ahead,” she said. “We’ve always been a district that’s promoted fruits and vegetables. So I think you have to sell it and be positive about it.”
Rules requiring more fruits and vegetables were especially difficult to implement because many children don’t get those items at home, she said.
The transition for the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district was “relatively uneventful,” said food service director Jeff Wolfer. Last year, the district registered a “slight increase” in meal participation among the district’s eight public schools.
Students have become accustomed to new healthier eating habits due to several initiatives, Wolfer said. Salad bars have been offered for at least five years and elementary students have been “taste-testing” fresh fruits and vegetables through a USDA program providing classroom snacks.
Responding to complaints from students and school districts, USDA temporarily revised its rules last December to allow larger servings of meat and whole-grain products for the upcoming school year.
At the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, Knight hopes the changes will be enough to win back students who stopped buying school lunch last year. That means that students may get garlic toast with their spaghetti again or a slice of cheese with their burgers.
“It will just be food-service employees doing the job they know how to do and qualified to do and trying to get our customer base back,” Knight said.
Earn extra credit with healthy brown-bag lunch
BY ROXI REJALI
Sometimes, a brown-bag lunch can be the best option.
Families may be concerned about cost of cafeteria food or kids may not like the food there.
Lunch is critical to children’s health and well-being. Kids who skip lunch may have trouble concentrating on schoolwork, lack energy for sports and after-school activities and are more likely to overeat junk food after school, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
A lunch should supply one-third of a child’s daily calorie needs. Aim for a balance of food groups, including lean meat and protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and low-fat milk or dairy products.
Parents can take steps to increase the chances that their kid will eat a packed lunch instead of tossing it in the trash, said Jill Verchota, health promotion specialist at the Dakota County Public Health Department.
Increase “buy-in” by involving the child in the process of shopping for and choosing their lunch options, said Verchota, a registered dietitian. They can also help to assemble and pack lunches that can be stored overnight in the fridge.
“Mornings are usually hectic,” she said. “A lot’s going on. So make it as easy as possible and do as much as possible the night before.”
Verchota offers these tips:
• Make sandwiches with whole-grain bread. Add low-sodium meats like turkey and vegetables like lettuce and tomato. Or try a peanut-butter and banana filling.
• Pack fruits or vegetables portioned into small plastic bags or reusable containers. Try clementine oranges, apple slices, strawberries, mangoes or pineapple. Individually packaged applesauce is another option.
• Supply protein with string cheese, whole-grain crackers and cheese, individual yogurt cups or a small bag of peanuts or trail mix.
• For food safety, pack items in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack.