Government regulations posing problem with school lunch menus
Since 2012, schools across the country have implemented food restrictions and guidelines in lunch-time meal programs for students.
When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010, schools were told the regulations and restrictions had to be executed before the 2012-'13 school year. The regulations are enforced by the food and nutrition services division of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Some changes to meal programs included more fruits and veggies being offered to students, low- or non-fat milk versus 2 percent milk, limits on calories and portion control, more whole grain options and reductions in saturated fats and sodium in meals.
Fast forward two years later, and local schools are still facing the challenges of the regulations. According to Sharon Ofstad, food service program director at the Hurley K-12 School, one of the biggest challenges is portion sizes.
The program guidelines say a high school student can only receive 2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative during lunch, with younger students receiving 1 ounce. In comparison, the weight of an average size red delicious apple is 3.5 ounces.
"It's not enough," Ofstad said. "Kids are going home hungry, and for some, this is their only meal until 6:30-7 o'clock at night."
Waste has also become an issue, specifically regarding whole grain items. Mary Hampston, food service director for the Ironwood Area Schools, said whole grain pasta is one of the main things students won't eat.
"The whole grain buns aren't a big deal, and the pizza crust is good, but the pasta has got to go," Hampston said.
Ofstad agreed, saying she has trouble getting students to eat it.
"The hugest waste is from the whole wheat pasta," Ofstad said. "It's not appealing and they don't like the taste."
Despite the challenges, Ofstad and Hampston have found students eat more fruits and vegetables during lunch. Hampston will often ask kids where the fruits and veggies are on their trays, with many students grabbing apples, oranges, broccoli, carrots or even salad.
"We make a game of it," Hampston said.
Ofstad said at Hurley the students are eating twice as many fruits and vegetables on the salad bar than before.
Strangely enough, the regulations have proven to show students enjoying healthier options versus the "old lunch-standbys."
"The other day we had students throwing away mini corn dogs," Ofstad said. "Kids use to love those, but they are acquiring tastes for foods that aren't pre-packaged."
Hampston said the key is not serving the same foods too close together.
"We are on a six-week menu rotation, but I always like to find something new to replace something that is comparable," Hampston said.
Some of the old standbys are still favorites in the lunch room, such as whole grain pizza and chicken nuggets.
"Tyson made a good product with their chicken nuggets and patties," Ofstad said. "The kids really don't even notice the difference."
Another challenge for food preparers is fighting the conception that everything is pre-packaged.
"It's not," Hampston said. "We make many things homemade like spaghetti, chili and other foods. The kids really enjoy it and it just doesn't come from a box. We are limited by the regulations, but you have to be creative."
Currently, USDA is planning on implementing restrictions on "Smart Snacks" in schools. According to the USDA website, schools must only sell "Smart Snacks," and in order for a food item to qualify, it must be a whole-grain rich product; have a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food as the first ingredient; be a combination food that contains at least one-fourth cup of fruits and/or vegetables; or contain 10 percent of the daily value of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.
Beverages may only be plain water, unflavored low-fat milk, unflavored or flavored fat-free milk, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice diluted with water and no added sweetener.
According to the USDA website, fundraisers may be an exemption during non-school hours, on weekends and at off-campus events.
Another regulation is the gradual lowering of sodium levels in food. Starting July 1, schools can only offer meals to high schoolers with less than 1,420 milligrams of sodium, equal to a 0.6 teaspoon of salt. The goal is to lower the sodium levels in lunch meals to high schoolers to 1,080 mg by 2017, with a final target of 740 total mg for high schoolers in 2022.
"The lower sodium is one thing I don't agree with," Ofstad said. "As with everything in life, moderation is key. I have to add other seasons to boost the flavor of foods because the kids don't want to eat something without any taste."
Hampston agrees, saying moderation is key with sodium.
"It's not like we cook with extreme levels of sodium," Hampston said. "You have to limit it, I get that, but I don't know if it has necessarily been proven sodium is completely harmful. Moderation is key, but when everything has to be approved by the government, you have to watch everything you do."
To learn more about the school lunch program guidelines, visit fns.usda.gov/school-meals/child-nutrition-programs.