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The Suburbanite
  • Creating healthy, kid-friendly meals challenge for schools

  • In an effort to reduce the calories consumed during school breakfast and lunch periods, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has produced a new set of guidelines for food service programs to follow. The standards impact nearly 32 million students who participate in hot lunch programs nationwide and 11 million who participate in breakfast programs.

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  • School children in the early 19th century walked home from school each day for lunch. Going home to eat with the family was part of a normal day as parents worked close to home and those homes were close to the local school.
    Times have changed.
    With parents working further away from home and towns being more populated and spread out, today's students eat lunch – and many eat breakfast in school cafeterias.
    So lunches are changing.
    In the last 30 years, childhood obesity has tripled. It’s a staggering statistic that has forced school districts and federal agencies to take note and search for solutions. They’re looking for the kind of solutions that raise the bar for health standards in cafeterias nationwide.
    In an effort to reduce the calories consumed during school breakfast and lunch periods, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has produced a new set of guidelines for food service programs to follow. The standards impact nearly 32 million students who participate in hot lunch programs nationwide and 11 million who participate in breakfast programs.
    School menus have changed significantly to meet the new guidelines and, in doing so, present school food service programs with new challenges.
    Mark Bindus District Dietitian for Coventry Local Schools said in an email that the new USDA regulations were designed to increase student intake of fruits and vegetables.
    "They certainly do that by requiring students to take a minimum of one serving of fruit or vegetable on each lunch in order to qualify as a federally reimbursable meal,” Bindus wrote. He also noted that this guideline increases the cost for the food service. Nonetheless, Bindus believes that it is the right thing to do nutritionally.  
    Additional guidelines establish maximum sodium and calorie limits and require schools to serve at least one fruit and one vegetable in larger portions. For example, high school students receive one cup of fruit and vegetables. This is up from three-quarters of a cup which were previously required.
    A minimum number of leafy green vegetables, red-orange vegetables, starchy vegetables and legumes must also be served each week. All grains served – such as brown rice, buns, breads, cereals and pastas – must have whole grain listed as the first ingredient and milk must be low-fat or fat free.
    No foods containing trans fats can be served.
    Locally, these changes have been adopted and school district officials find advantages and disadvantages to the program.
    FROM TRAY TO TRASH
    Cafeteria personnel at the Springfield and Lake local schools find more food – especially vegetables – being thrown away.
    "The new guidelines require that we provide up to one cup of green leafy, bean/legumes and red/orange vegetables each week,” Lake Food Service Director Dave Lloyd wrote in an email. “There are not many vegetables to choose from that the kids want to eat in these categories. Therefore, they throw away a lot of refried/baked beans, spinach salad and sweet potato items."
    Page 2 of 3 - As a registered dietitian for Coventry, it is Bindus’ job to not only to meet new requirements, but meet his goal to serve foods (fruits and vegetables) that students will not just take, but will also eat.
    "While there is always going to be issues with plate waste,” Bindus wrote, “we (school food service) are charged with being creative with offerings that will decrease waste.”
    To encourage children to take – and eat – fresh fruits, Coventry has offered items such as fresh sliced apples with caramel dip, strawberries with a small dollop of whipped topping, sliced bananas with drizzled chocolate or applesauce flavored with a small amount of strawberry Jell-O powder.
    "Though we might be adding a little bit of sugar to our fresh fruit, it is not much,” Bindus wrote, “and the trade off is that students not only take these items, they actually eat them as well.”
    Schools find it trickier to "disguise" the healthiness in vegetables.
    Low-fat ranch dip encourages children to eat raw carrots. Bindus has discovered that students like fresh romaine side salads and cucumbers with dip.
    "We interject items like fresh steamed broccoli and old favorites like green beans and buttered corn into the menu as well,” Bindus wrote.
    Springfield, meanwhile, was surprised to find that kids liked broccoli.
    "We add just a little cheese and they like it," said Gerrie Wood cafeteria manager for Young Elementary School.
    Children in the Springfield district also have an affinity for spinach salads and carrots with low-fat dip. They aren’t fond of beets, but they do love rice.
    For many schools, the greatest challenge comes with offering legumes.
    Well, offering the legumes is the easy part. Getting students to take and eat the offerings can be tough.
    That’s where creativity comes in.
    Homemade BBQ baked beans, refried beans with cheese and Crunchy Cinnamon Chickpeas (chickpeas that are roasted till crunchy, sprayed with a canola-based butter spray and tossed with cinnamon sugar) are among the more popular legumes for Coventry kids.
    "The good thing for our schools and our taxpayers is that all of our beans/legumes that we offer are low cost USDA commodity food items,” Bindus wrote. “So they are, as I would say, ‘low risk, high reward food items.’ They cost our district very little and the health benefits of these vegetables are extremely high.”
    LOSING MONEY
    Although the challenges are great, Lloyd believes that students do eat at least some of the fruits and vegetables they take.
    Still, Lloyd can’t help but be concerned about the numbers in the food service ledger. Yes, Lake’s food service program has felt the impact of the new guidelines.
    Page 3 of 3 - Last year, Lake’s lunch count dropped 22 percent – a result of what he believes are new lunch requirements.
    "This year, we're down another 5 percent,” he wrote in an email. “I have seen what students bring in their (packed) lunches and I can say that the school lunches are much more healthy than the sack lunch. So, by serving less lunches – because students do not like some of the choices – and having them pack  – which on the norm are less healthy – are we doing what's best for the students?"
    Since the food service is a self-operating business, Lake has not replaced two staff members that have left due to the decrease in lunch sales.
     

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