Beyond the lunch line
Schools revamp menus per healthier federal standards
By Kristin Will
SOUTH HADLEY – Serious changes to South Hadley school meal menus will be implemented this year as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act created by the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.
The historic improvements change a system that has not been updated for more than 30 years. Approximately 32 million children participate in school meal programs nation-wide. And with percentages of childhood obesity throughout the country on the rise, these changes come at just the right time.
“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a January interview. “When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future – today we take an important step towards that goal.”
The sweeping changes will focus on lunch in this 2012-13 school year with small tweaks to breakfast menus. The majority of breakfast changes will be phased in through the next few years, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” said First Lady Michelle Obama, who championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign. “And when we’re putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. 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. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”
Serving guidelines have now been established for each grade level based on the nutritional requirements of those age groups – down to the required intake of different colored fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a little more challenging,” said South Hadley Schools Food Service Director Matthew S. Hoagland. “ It’s a little more expensive.”
Tasting the rainbow
Five cups of fruit and vegetables must now be offered to students on a weekly basis, rotating in color. For example, said Hoagland, on Monday, Sept. 10, South Hadley students will be served carrots. On Tuesday, they will be served steamed broccoli, followed by a legume on Wednesday and corn Thursday. The students are literally tasting the rainbow.
Previously, there were no specifications as to which vegetables must be served. Now daily, students must be served between three-fourths of a cup and one cup of vegetables in addition to one-half to one cup of fruit.
Eating colorfully reduces one’s risk of a bevy of diseases.
Red fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, tomatoes and peppers, contain lycopene, which fights against cancer. They also contain antioxidants.
Orange fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and carrots, contain carotenoids like beta-carotene. These contain vitamins B and C, folate and reduce the risk of heart attacks and improve immune function.
Dark greens, such as broccoli, collard greens and spinach, contain lutein which keeps eyes healthy. The greens are also sources of folate and Vitamin B.
Beans and peas, also known as legumes and excellent sources of protein, are required to be provided during the week in addition to starchy vegetables like corn, green peas and white potatoes. The beans and peas can serve as a meat alternative.
Finally, a subgroup labeled “other” in the Act requires other vegetables like onions, green beans and cucumbers, to be served.
Going with the whole grain
At least half of grains served during the day must be whole grains, effective this school year. Starting in 2014, all grains served must be whole. Previously serving whole grains was simply “encouraged.”
Minimum ranges of grain intake varies from each grade level. Grades K-5 must be served at least one ounce daily and eight to nine ounces weekly. For grades 6-8, students must be served a minimum of one ounce daily and eight to 10 ounces weekly. Finally, for grades 9-12, students must be served at least two ounces at a daily minimum and 10 to 12 ounces weekly. In the past, all grade levels were given eight servings of grains per week with a minimum of one serving per day. “You really need to watch the menu so you’re not offering too many grains,” said Hoagland.
Snacks like cookies and pretzels must be 51 percent whole grain. The same goes for pizza dough, hamburger and hot dog buns, bagels and pasta.
“A lot of vendors are following the guidelines,” said Hoagland, adding that all food vendors are aware of the new standards.
A La Cart items, sugary drinks banned
No more are the days when a student could purchase a soda or sugary drink in a vending machine at school. South Hadley schools have removed all such vending machines. And with these new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act changes, drinks like Snapple and Gatorade are gone, too. “Drinks have to be naturally sweetened,” said Hoagland. The only beverages schools can offer and sell in addition to milk are water and 100 percent juices. “It’s going to be a culture shock for the kids,” he said.
Previously, a number of snacks were sold on the A La Cart menu. Now, the menu has been drastically reduced. Students can only purchase small bags of baked potato chips, baked pretzels and “pop chips.”
Streamlining servings, services
Changes to milk and meat/meat alternative servings are not as significant but important. One cup of milk is still required to be served every day. But now, the milk must be fat-free in the flavored and unflavored varieties (similarly for lactose-reduced or lactose-free types) or one percent low fat unflavored only.
Meat and meat alternative servings, once previously suggested between 1.5 and 2-ounce minimum servings daily, have been cemented at a minimum of one ounce daily for grades K-8 and two ounces daily for grades 9-12. Tofu and soy yogurt are allowed as meat alternatives for vegetarian students.
As further changes are implemented through the next few years, calories will be limited based on students’ ages for proper portion sizes, and food service directors will focus on reducing saturated fats, trans fats and sodium in each meal.
Hoagland said former lunches and breakfasts in South Hadley schools were not particularly bad for students. “They weren’t unhealthy before,” he said. But now, “there’s a balance.”
And while he completely agrees with implementing these changes, Hoagland said encouraging children to eat healthy should be community wide. “It can’t just be from the lunch program,” he said. “Parents really need to educate their children on healthier choices.”
As for student reaction to the revamped, healthier menu, Hoagland said he would like parents to encourage their children to try out the meals. “I think some of them will be shocked at first, but I think they will adapt to it. It’s change. And it takes time to accept change.”