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School lunches getting healthier

STUDENTS AT BUCKEYE Elementary help themselves to a salad bar in the lunch room. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene
STUDENTS AT BUCKEYE Elementary help themselves to a salad bar in the lunch room. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene

On Jan. 25 the First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack introduced new federal nutrition standards for lunches in public and private schools. The new standards go into effect on July 1 and have a three-year phase-in period.

Under the new standards, school meals will have caloric maximums and minimums based on a student’s age. Fresh fruits and vegetables are to be offered at every meal and whole grains will replace all of the current grain offerings. Milk and dairy products are to be low fat or fat free and there is a reduction in the amount of allowed saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

At the El Dorado County Office of Education, school lunches already meet some of the new standards and others are planned to be in place a year before they are required.

According to Superintendent of Schools Vicki Barber, her office’s Food Services Department began implementing the new standards for fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year and has always had a policy of serving 2 ounces of meat/meat alternative, which fulfills the new standards.

Milk offerings at the El Dorado County Office of Education already meet the new standards of flavored milk being fat-free and unflavored milk being 1 percent low fat milk. At least 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables are also offered at each meal.

“We are busy recalculating our bread/grain recipes to meet the new standards of at least half our products being whole grain,” said Barber, “and we are planning to start the 2012-13 school year with all our grain products being made from whole grains, meeting the new 100 percent whole grain requirement one year early.”

The Office of Education is having a discussion with school district representatives as to whether they can collaboratively assist with developing any implementation plans for the new nutrition standards.

“I  think the new standards are a great idea. Every child should eat this way,” said Joe Murchison, superintendent of Gold Trail Union School District. “When I became superintendent some six or seven years ago, we started making changes because the state had some goofy ideas about healthy foods.”

He cited the use of an orange juice popsicle as deemed an acceptable fruit offering by state standards. “We offer fruit every day and have a salad bar at our 4-8th grade school.”

Tater tots and canned fruit in heavy sugar syrup are going away in the district, said Murchison, who said that with the transfat ban California instituted in school lunches during Gov. Schwarzenegger’s term, some children eat healthier at school than at home.

“But the problem is the commodities we receive from the federal government at low cost. Every school district has to use them in order to afford to offer meals without using money from their General Fund.”

Baldev Johal, associate superintendent of Business Services for the El Dorado Union High School District, agrees that the commodity offerings must change and he believes they will.

“It is incumbent upon the food production managers to change and make their products fit the nutritional standards or schools will not be able to purchase them.”

The challenge as Johal sees it, is for schools to offer tasty meals that students enjoy eating and still meet the nutritional standards.

“California is always ahead of the curve, so at EDUHSD we already offer five fruits and five vegetables every week, whole wheat pasta and non-fat and low-fat milk. It will take a little time for food suppliers to make the low sodium foods available.”

He estimates the new standards might add 10 to 15 cents to the price of each meal, which the additional 6 cents subsidy the federal government has promised will not cover. “The good news is that we’re already implementing about 90 percent of the new standards.”

Educating the palates of American students will take time as well, said Johal. “Things that taste good to most of us now are things that are high in fat and sodium, but over time, the next generation will have different palates.”

Kim Andreasen, nutrition services program director for Rescue and Buckeye school districts, has the food services of 14 schools, 10 of them elementary schools, to oversee.

“Sodium is going to be a huge challenge,” said Andreasen. “The new standards have been talked about for a while and we already offer fresh fruit every day and garden bars are already in place. Most of our grains are whole grain, too, and our milk products are low-fat and non-fat.”

But sodium levels, which are slated to drop dramatically from 1,377 milligrams for students in grades kindergarten to fifth to 935 milligrams by 2015 and then to less than 640 milligrams by 2022, will be difficult to achieve, said Andreasen.

“The commodities of meats and cheeses and other products — all those suppliers and processors must reduce the sodium levels.”

The central kitchens at Rescue and Buckeye that produce food for the schools are proud of being self-supported. They don’t add sodium to their homemade products like spaghetti sauce and sloppy joes, but Andreasen says the kids prefer the pre-processed foods they are familiar with.

As first and second graders at Buckeye Elementary School added kiwis, apples, orange slices, celery, broccoli and bags of carrots from the garden bar to their pizza and milk, it appears there is hope for changing the palates of American youngsters.

“We’ve added kiwis and jicama to the garden bar, which most of the students had never eaten,” said Andreasen, “and they’ve been a big hit.”

Still, school isn’t the only place children eat.

“I hope children get an education about what to eat at home as well as at school, ” said Andreasen. “They  bring Lunchables to school and eat a lot of fast foods at home, so they aren’t used to the taste or looks of homemade food. It’s challenging because we want to stay financially sound. Children are our customers and we want to keep them coming back.”

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Posted by on Feb 20 2012.
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