School cafeteria favorites could disappear as food rules take hold

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By The Kansas City Star, adapted by Newsela staff
May. 14, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — School nutritionist Leah Schmidt has always loved solving one particular puzzle: How do you serve up healthy meals that picky children will actually eat?

On Monday at Dobbs Elementary, the regular post-lunch parade of children by the trash cans revealed that the day’s lunch had largely been successful.

A smattering of whole apple slice servings got dumped — but otherwise, empty trays and empty milk cartons filled the bins.

But the puzzle may soon become too hard, Schmidt fears.

Reaching Higher Nutrition Goals

The School Nutrition Association is calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ease up on the next round of federal healthy food requirements, which go into effect on July 1. The goals have been rising steeply over the last two years.

Schmidt is the current national president of the nutrition association.

The nutritionists are worried about three regulations. One would require all grain servings to be rich in whole grains — or more than 50 percent whole-grain — affecting such items as pastas, bread, rolls and pizza crusts. The current rule requires half the grain servings to be rich in whole grains.

Another rule would make it so children must pick up a fruit or vegetable with each meal, rather than just expecting servers to strongly encourage it. Schools fear it will lead to food waste.

The USDA also is phasing in steep reductions in the allowable amounts of sodium, which would become a problem particularly with the levels expected by 2017, Schmidt said.

“One deli turkey sandwich with cheese and mustard would use up most of the sodium for the week,” she said.

Stricter Menus

Schools already are feeling some strain, the nutrition association reported. Since the new standards were first implemented in 2012, the number of children participating in lunch and breakfast programs has fallen by 1.2 million, from 31 million to less than 30 million.

“It used to be fun playing with things, letting kids pick things,” Schmidt said about menu planning. “But now when you get a menu down, you don’t change it.”

As things are, schools already have responded to weekly limits on calories, sodium and fat while meeting rising expectations on nutrients, grains and meats — all depending on the ages of students.

The calories within the overall limit can’t be more than 30 percent fat or 10 percent saturated fat.

Goodbye Mac And Cheese

Dobbs fifth-grader Cree Crook said she thinks her school’s lunch team has done fairly well at satisfying her and her classmates. The whole-grain movement has taken regular macaroni and cheese out of the mix. Whole-grain pasta just doesn’t work with that kid favorite, Schmidt said. According to Cree, that is OK.

“We have the Santa Fe Mac,” she said, talking about the whole-grain pasta and cheese dish with red sauce. “It’s good, and it comes with a whole-wheat roll. The wheat roll is very healthy for you,” she said.

Cree said she thinks children are getting the message. She knows to get tomatoes and lettuce in her taco salad and she’s learned to like green beans.

The USDA acknowledges that schools have come a long way toward providing healthy meals as now more than 90 percent of schools are meeting the standards.

Creative Cooking

In the Shawnee Mission School District, the food services manager, Nancy Coughenour, said nutritionists and students have mostly adapted to the healthier demands.

“You have to mess with it,” she said, meaning coming up with recipes from scratch or working with food suppliers.

The district’s regular chocolate cake dessert is now made with whole-grain flour, she said. Going to whole-grain soft tortillas was a tricky move that seems to have gone well.

Coughenour said elementary school programs that give pupils opportunities to try new vegetables and fruits in classroom settings have helped. She agrees, however, that the next level of demands may be pushing too far, particularly when it comes to the sodium limits.

Pass On The Salt Please

The 2017 target — 935 milligrams of sodium total in an elementary school lunch and 1,080 milligrams of sodium in a high school lunch — looks to be too high of a standard for food manufacturers, Coughenour said. Some student favorites may not survive.

“You have to rely on manufacturers,” she said. “Chicken nuggets, pizza, ketchup, mustard — I don’t know what we’ll do with those.”

Janey Thornton, a USDA undersecretary, acknowledged the food industry isn’t ready to meet the coming sodium standard. However, she encouraged frustrated school lunch directors to “worry about today first before we imagine the worst down the road.”

Thornton, a former school nutrition director, says problems will lessen as the food industry creates healthier products. “I’ll bet that five or seven years down the road, we’ll see kids eating healthy food and we’ll see acceptance,” she said.

For her part, Cree’s not going back to her old eating habits. Her parents are on board with the changes, she said. “My mom and dad want me to have four vegetables and fruits (every day).”

The school nutritionists are not going back either, Schmidt said. Of course they will push for healthier meals, she said. “It’s in our DNA.”

But as for the USDA standards, she said, “I hope they’ll be realistic about it.”

kevin torres

Staff Cartoonist, NMHS Blue Prints

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