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What’s for lunch? Bunches of changes for US school meals

By B. Adam Burke
Solon Economist
SOLON– In slicing and dicing the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill, all political flavors weighed in with their opinions. The five-year update, renamed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was passed in 2010.
One-time vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin found U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) efforts to curb certain foods an example of “a nanny-state run amok” and then started bringing batches of cookies to speeches to emphasize her point.
The legislation got a big push from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Obama said the bipartisan legislation was groundbreaking and “(would) significantly improve the quality of meals that children receive at school and will play an integral role in our efforts to combat childhood obesity.”
Cookies will still be allowed under the school lunch plan, but you might not be able to get one with glazed icing.
The nutrition rules come from the USDA’s MyPlate plan (www.choosemyplate.gov), a replacement nutrition model for the out-of-date food pyramids.
MyPlate is a departure from the retired food pyramid in several ways.
The new plan expands the generic vegetable category into red/orange, dark green, bean/legume and starchy veggies.
Your plate should now be half-covered with servings of fruits and veggies, with whole grain and protein portions filling out the rest of the meal.
Other tips for eating right include varying proteins by including fish, peas, beans, nets, lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
In Solon school kitchens, the changes come in stride for nutrition director Kelly Crossley. She’s finding new recipes and tinkering with old favorites for 2012-2013 after boosting customer satisfaction last year, her first at Solon.
Among some of the maybe items for this year’s menu, she was toying with adding new dishes like Moroccan shredded carrot salad, acorn squash bowls, and broccoli macaroni and cheese.
The USDA has caught up with the science on this update, Crossley said. The shift will make school meals healthier. It’s also in line with her belief that empty carbs and grains are a culprit as far as childhood obesity.
Crossley said the new school nutrition program goes far enough for now and said the only problem she had with it was the short amount of time given to prepare for it.
School nutrition programs try to be self-sufficient but Solon’s isn’t yet. In May 2012, the school board approved an August price increase.
Lakeview Elementary students will pay an additional 30¢, middle school prices will increase 20¢, and high school meals will cost an extra 35¢.
The new lunch prices will close the budget gap, but some of the new menu changes will also hit the nutrition budget. Less meat and grain products will save some dough (literally), but Crossley is still working on bids for other items.
Students will now be asked to take at least one fruit or vegetable so that the school gets a credit for the meal but (contrary to rumor and barring a lunchroom visit from Mrs. Obama) they will not be forced to eat it.
Students are encouraged to try healthy food as a nutritional model for eating right every day.
Crossley will continue to introduce new foods at the three schools, “the whole point of this is to model a healthy meal for these kids.”
It can take dozens of tries to get kids to eat new foods, she said, so it’s important not to give in to easy junk food cravings.
Previously, public schools only had to meet a minimum calorie threshold. Now, they must stay below a weekly caloric ceiling.
Grain and bread items must include at least 50 percent whole grains this year and 100 percent next year. Some whole grain foodstuffs include brown rice, rolled oats, whole wheat flour, whole-grain kernel corn, and whole-grain pastas.
Crossley is scrambling to find sources for the new whole grain requirement and said there will likely be fewer leftovers from day to day in Solon. For example, she said they’ll make smaller batches of coleslaw this year to more closely account for weekly calorie totals.
Condiments also count towards calorie totals, meaning ketchup and dressing might go into portion cups so they’re accurately counted.
Solon school charges for any extra items beyond a standard five-item meal. Each meal includes portions of milk, bread/grain, fruit, veggie, and protein. All extra or substituted items will still be charged the a la carte price.
“If a student refuses to add an item when asked,” she said, “we have to charge them for each item they do have, a la carte, rather than a student lunch.
Students at Lakeview Elementary and Solon Middle School will pay $2.35 for lunch. Student lunches at Solon High School are now $2.50.
An additional 6¢ reimbursement for meals is part of the new law. Unfortunately the 6¢ boost won’t kick in until October, Crossley said, meaning further losses for her program. It’s the same for every U.S. school nutrition program, requiring districts to certify menus and have them approved by October or forfeit the reimbursement.
Solon has the lowest percentage of free and reduced lunch recipients in the state. Interested families should contact their district to qualify for free or reduced prices on meals. In Solon, the reduced price is just 30¢ for breakfast and 40¢ for lunch.
A $2 billion cut in the food stamps program known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) paid for the updated school menus. SNAP’s 2013 cuts will likely contribute to shortages at local food pantries trying to keep pace with rising rates of hunger in the U.S. Almost 50 million U.S. citizens live in food-insecure households, of these, over 16 million are children.
Solon school menus can be found at their website: www.solon.k12.ia.us.