Last week Olivia Sniezek bought her first school lunch.
On the menu: whole grain blueberry waffles, Canadian bacon, carrot sticks and a choice of 1 percent or fat free milk.
And the taste: “Good,” said the 5-year-old Utican who attends Albany Elementary School (NY). “I like buying because it’s fun. It makes me feel like a kindergartener.”
What Olivia doesn’t know is that her lunch wasn’t haphazardly thrown on the tray; calories and protein to grain ratios were calculated, and fruit and vegetables were regulated by not only Utica City School District staff, but the federal government.
Since fall 2012, districts have had to abide by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for school meals, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, calling for more vegetables and fruit as well as calorie limits by grade level and sodium targets.
But it hasn’t been all gravy, as some school districts have struggled with the higher costs of the approved food, lack of student participation and simply figuring out what can and can’t be served.
“Everything is a work in progress,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, School Nutrition Association spokesperson. “We’re seeing schools doing a lot of experimenting and making adjustments to their menus to make sure kids are liking the healthier options and really encouraging them to try new things.”
The school can only do so much, though. Educators hope the program will teach the students good habits that they can take home if not already enforced by their parents.
“The healthier the kids are in their diets and in their physical activity, the better they’re prepared to focus and sit down in class,” Pratt-Heavner said.
As for students like Olivia, she just can’t wait for pizza day—with a whole grain crust, of course.
Locally, Jackson County Nutrition Program Director Debbie Harper presented a breakfast participation report to the Jackson County Board of Education that detailed the effects of breakfast programs like the “Grab and Go” and “Breakfast in the Classroom” utilized in 58% of West Virginia Schools and administered through the Innovative Breakfast Strategies program.
The report showed an increase of 1,291students eating breakfast from August 2012 to August 2013. Pre K, elementary and middle schools within the county were tallied. Ripley Middle School showed a whopping increase of 597.
While neither county high school met eligibility requirements to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program, they showed decreased numbers and were included in the report.
“We have received mostly positive feedback from our teachers. They are seeing increased focus within the classroom,” said Harper. “I’m pleased that children who do not have the opportunity to get a balanced breakfast can benefit from these programs.”
Jackson County Schools developed a creative way to get the food to their elementary classrooms by purchasing small red wagons that provide ease in transport and a visual aide for the students who are excited to have their breakfast delivered in the wagons.
“It has been a tremendous help to our kitchen staff and teachers. The students find it appealing, too,” said Harper.
A national survey of principals and teachers showed that 86.8% said that they would like to have a breakfast and lunch program for the next school year. 79.6% said that the programs are worth the time and money. 63.2% felt that the opportunity to eat a free breakfast at school contributes to their (students) overall well-being to a major extent.
Trials and regulations
Nationally, 33 million American children are served each day through the school lunch program, about 1.5 million in New York State, said USDA Under Secretary Kevin Cocannon. “These are the first major changes in decades in the meal requirements.”
They include age-adjusted calorie limits and reductions in saturated fats, trans fat and sodium. Though experts agree the end goal is important, the transition has been a process.
“It was a disaster last year,” said Tom Pfisterer, director of School Food Services for Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES.
Serving 12 local districts, the BOCES normally serves about 6,200 lunches daily. After the changes that number dropped to 5,200 last year, Pfisterer said.
“The guidelines were so prohibitive and restrictive that we lost student customers,” he said. “Anything that would make a young kid excited about buying lunch was basically removed.”
The two biggest issues were that the recommended protein requirements were insufficient for middle and high school students, as were the grain requirements, Cocannon said.
“They were too limiting so we made an adjustment partway through the year and said schools may increase the grains and the proteins as long as they don’t exceed the calorie limits,” he said.
The USDA encouraged schools to practice “offer versus serve,” giving students choices as they move through the line.
“There’s no point in having a fabulous menu if nobody eats it,” Cocannon said. “It’s human nature. If I make a choice there’s a much higher likelihood that I’m going to consume the food.”
The decrease of about 200 meals from its normal about 3,600 meals served daily made for financial difficulty in the Rome City School District, said district Food Services Director. Chris Whitmore.
Without the income and with increased spending due to the high cost of produce, Whitmore’s $3 million budget was left about $30,000 in the red last year, he said.
“I think this year will be a little better. You learn from the first year what sells, what doesn’t sell, and how to much to make,” he said. The number of students purchasing lunch also is slowly rising.
The most difficult part is finding recipes kids like, especially when it comes to the legume regulations.
“I tried 10 different recipes,” Whitmore said describing bean casserole and Mexican bean combos. “That’s a lot of labor and a lot of time for kids not to eat.”
Schools can choose to opt out of the national program, but a summer survey from the School Nutrition Association showed that 92.7 percent of school nutrition directors have no plans to drop out. Those who did would lose school lunch funds reimbursed by the government.
Recipes for success
The Utica City School District encountered hardly any problems implementing the new standards for its more than 10,000 students.
“We talked it up prior to the regulations going in so all of our employees were aware that this was coming,” said Mary Katherine VanDreason, Utica City School District Food Service director. “We were quite proactive.”
Menus previously had incorporated many of the now-regulated items. “There really wasn’t a huge change for us,” she said.
With 71 percent, of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Utica student participation remained the same as they rely on the district.
The district now provides free lunch to all its students through the federal Community Eligibly Option of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Other ways schools are helping to ease the transition include student taste tests, farm to school programs where students learn where their food comes from, and having a featured vegetable or fruit of the month so students learn about produce that may be new to them.
Rifeta Corbic, of Utica, used to pack lunch for her kindergartener and fourth grader, but now that it’s free and healthy, buying lunch is a no-brainer.
“It’s excellent,” Corbic said. “It’s easier. Now they have healthy food rather than snacks.”
USDA meal programs show mixed results nationally, positive locally
Last week Olivia Sniezek bought her first school lunch.