LaRue County Schools seem better prepared than many other districts to implement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed nutrition changes intended to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition.
The first rewrite of school-meal rules in 15 years, the proposed standards aim to cut sodium, boost the amount and types of fruits and vegetables students are offered, cut saturated fat, increase whole grains, and limit calories.
“We have already received the Healthier US Gold award for our elementary schools, and our menu is the same throughout the district, with changes in portion sizes,” said DeeAnne Sanders, the district’s coordinator of nutrition. “The new proposed meal pattern is very similar to these criteria with a few exceptions of decreasing the sodium levels, calorie levels, and limiting the starchy vegetables to one cup per week.”
The proposed rules, prompted by the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, were published in January. It may be next year before they are final, giving schools until at least the 2012-13 school year to put the new standards into practice.
“Our nutrition program started working toward these goals from the time that I began this job about 10 years ago,” said Sanders. “I immediately started working toward getting 1% milk or less served in place of any whole milk. I also started getting whole wheat breads and freshly made entrée salads and sandwich wraps daily on the menus throughout the district.”
The proposal calls for all breads served to be made with 50 percent whole grain once the rules go into effect, and to be entirely of whole grain two years after implementation.
All of LaRue’s sandwich bread and buns are already 100% whole grain and have been for several years, according to Sanders. Homemade yeast rolls are not, but the district is working on a recipe that uses 100% whole-wheat flour.
New rules also call for students to be offered one full cup of fruit at breakfast, which could be replaced with vegetables.
“The entire meal pattern will be more costly, especially with increasing the fresh fruit/vegetable varieties to help ensure that students will find something they will accept,” offered Sanders. “Next year we will offer daily four or more fruit/vegetable combinations and work toward reducing the starchy vegetable offerings slowly for easier student acceptance.”
Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, or lima beans) are strictly limited under the proposed regulation. Sanders believes that the starchy vegetable issue will be changed before implementation in 2013.
“I think that lumping all of the starchy vegetables such as limas, peas, corn and potatoes into one cup per week is too limiting.” she noted.
Another directive on legumes, dark green and orange vegetables states that they will have to be offered weekly, which is very similar to the Healthier US Gold criteria, noted Sanders.
“There is no bad food, and students need to be exposed to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as learn portion sizes,” she commented.
Cafeterias currently serve an entrée salad made with chopped romaine lettuce and baby spinach, which has been well accepted. Sanders has developed a couple of new salad entrée recipes for next year that will be vegetarian and incorporate hummus and boiled eggs as the protein.
“I have been told that in order for a new food to gain acceptance it needs to be offered 14 times,” she remarked. “It also makes a difference when the student has a lot of healthy options at home so that they are used to seeing whole grain bread, rice and pasta along with fresh fruits and vegetables.”
New requirements will call for limiting calories and sodium. For elementary students, breakfast calories will range from 350-500; 400-550 for middle schoolers, and 450-600 for high schoolers. For lunch, respective ranges are 550-650 calories, 600-700, and 750-850.
Over the course of 10 years, schools must reduce sodium to 430 milligrams or less per breakfast for elementary students, 470 or less for middle schoolers, and 500 or less for high school students. Respective lunch allowances are no more than 640, 710, 740 milligrams.
Sanders said the calorie and sodium requirements will be somewhat difficult in that it will mean that many of the food producers with which the district contracts will also have to work on reducing sodium.
The new meal pattern does not focus directly on sugar, but the calorie limitations indirectly address it, she added.
One main concern of school districts will be the added cost of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Anyone that goes to the grocery knows that all fresh produce is expensive, but it is no doubt the right thing to do,” said Sanders. “My concern is that if the students are not eating this way at home that they will have trouble transitioning their taste buds when at school.”
The district currently charges $1 for breakfast at all schools; reduced price is $.30 cents. Lunches at the high school are $1.75 and at the middle and elementary $1.55, 40 cents for reduced.
“We have not raised our lunch prices since 2007,” Sanders acknowledged. “However, the new law will require districts to raise paid lunches closer to the level of the federal reimbursement for free lunches which is currently at $2.74 cents per qualified free student.”
Called “equity in school lunch pricing,” this provision requires schools to provide the same level of support for lunches served to students who are not eligible for free or reduced price lunches as they are for lunches served to students eligible for free lunches.
According to Sanders, the provision is based on research by USDA that indicates that average prices charged for paid lunches are less than the cost of producing those lunches and that federal reimbursement funds are filling in this gap. Districts will have no choice once the policy mandate comes down from the state.
Sanders said her state office has told her that it is still too early to know exactly how the new meal pattern will be changed, noting the many comments from not only school personnel, but also the industry representatives, such as the potato growers, who will be greatly affected.
“I believe that the sodium issue will be the greatest area that will need cooperation from the food industry to be implemented,” she predicted. “Hopefully, the sodium levels will be reduced in the foods that we purchase at the grocery as well so that our taste buds can get used to healthier sodium levels.”
She said this effort of solving childhood obesity and malnutrition cannot be accomplished by any one stakeholder.
“There is definitely a childhood obesity problem and I want to do all I can in my position to help solve this crisis, but schools need the cooperation of parents and community,” stated Sanders. “It needs to be a comprehensive approach to be successful.”