Schenectady County

School lunches about to get leaner, healthier

Public school cafeterias will be dishing out more healthful meals this fall, thanks to new federal n

Public school cafeterias will be dishing out more healthful meals this fall, thanks to new federal nutrition standards.

Students will find more whole grains, lower-fat milk and fruits and vegetables on their trays.

The changes, which largely will be phased in over the next three years, are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which aims to improve children’s nutrition and curb obesity. It’s the first time school meal standards have been raised in over 15 years, and food service directors have a lot on their plates as they try to come up with meals that qualify and are still appetizing to students.

Menu samples

A look at what was dished out under the old school lunch guidelines and how those lunches might change to comply with new federal nutrition standards:

Before: Bean and cheese burrito (5.3 ounces) with mozzarella cheese (1 ounce)

Applesauce (1/4 cup)

Orange juice (4 ounces)

Two-percent milk (8 ounces)

After: Submarine sandwich (1 ounce turkey, 5 ounces low-fat cheese) on a whole wheat roll

Refried beans (1/2 cup)

Jicama (1/4 cup)

Green pepper strips (1/4 cup)

Cantaloupe wedges (1/2 cup)

Skim milk (8 ounces)

Mustard (9 grams)

Reduced-fat mayonnaise (1 ounce)

Low-fat ranch dip (1 ounce)

Before: Hot dog on a bun (3 ounces) with ketchup (4 tablespoons)

Canned pears (1/4 cup)

Raw celery and carrots (1/8 cup each) with ranch dressing (1.75 tablespoons)

Low-fat (1 percent) chocolate milk (8 ounces)

After: Whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce (1/2 cup)

Whole wheat roll

Green beans, cooked (1/2 cup)

Broccoli (1/2 cup)

Cauliflower (1/2 cup)

Kiwi halves (1/2 cup)

Low-fat (1 percent) milk (8 ounces)

Low-fat ranch dip (1 ounce)

Soft margarine (5 grams)

Before: Cheese pizza (4.8 ounces)

Canned pineapple (1/4 cup)

Tater Tots (1/2 cup) with ketchup (2 tablespoons)

Low-fat (1 percent) chocolate milk (8 ounces)

After: Whole wheat cheese pizza (1 slice)

Baked sweet potato fries (1/2 cup)

Grape tomatoes, raw (1/4 cup)

Applesauce (1/2 cup)

Low-fat (1 percent) milk (8 ounces)

Low-fat ranch dip (1 ounce)

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Under the new guidelines, schools must up the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, set age-appropriate calorie limits, banish trans fats and regulate the sodium content. Milk must be fat-free or low-fat. Dark green, orange or red vegetables and legumes have to show up on the lunch plate at least once a week, and students are required to select at least one fruit or vegetable with every meal.

This school year, the standards are being enforced only for lunches. Breakfast menus will need to be modified in future years.

Josie Ennist, food service director for the Schoharie Central School District, began adding whole grains and more vegetables to her school lunch menus last year in anticipation of the new regulations. She’s enthusiastic about offering more nutritious choices, but is also worried about how the new standards will translate to the lunch tray.

One of the biggest challenges she faces is the restriction on grains. The new guidelines dictate that a week’s worth of school lunches can’t contain more than nine servings per week of things like bread or rice for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Up until now, Ennist said she was able to dish out 15 servings.

“I offer peanut butter and jelly every day and each slice of bread is considered a serving, and that would be 10 servings [per week], so I’m looking at how I’m still going to be able to offer that and still stay under nine servings,” she said.

Taco day is another concern. The old meal included two flour tortillas and brown rice — three servings of grains.

“I don’t know that I could have a day with that many servings, especially in the elementary school,” she worried. “The idea is to fill in with fruits and vegetables, which is a healthy way to eat.”

Fruits and vegetables have been a constant on school lunch menus, but they didn’t always wind up on students’ lunch trays. Under the old guidelines, Ennist explained, students had to select at least three of the five lunch components — bread, protein, fruit, vegetables and milk — in order for the school to receive federal and state reimbursement for that lunch.

“They could take a milk, a bread and an apple and that would make a reimbursable lunch,” she said. “Not really what we’d like to see, but technically that would pass. But now the new regulations are requiring that one of those three components that they take will be a fruit or a vegetable.”

Forcing students to take things they might not want to eat is something Mary Jewell, food service director for the Duanesburg Central School District, isn’t all that keen on.

“They’re making us serve this stuff and they’re making the students take it, but how heavy is the garbage can going to be at the end of the day?” she wondered. “And to me, there’s enough kids out there that really do need the food and you’re making kids take it that don’t want it.”

Jewell hopes that she and other food service directors can come up with healthy menu choices that kids like so waste will be minimized.

“The premise behind it is a good idea — the healthier food, cut the fat, that’s all good. It’s just making it work,” she said.

Making it work is like trying to figure out a math problem that not only involves numbers, but food groups and the picky palates of children.

The new standards dictate different calorie allowances for lunches depending on the age group. For kindergarten through fifth grade, lunches need to stay within 550 and 650 calories. For grades six through eight, it’s 600 to 700. High schoolers are allotted between 750 and 800 calories.

Jewell serves between 400 and 450 school lunches each day in the Duanesburg District. Grades six through 12 all eat in one cafeteria, so making sure each student gets an appealing meal with the proper amount of calories is going to require some fancy footwork. As the calendar counts down to the first day of school, Jewell is busy trying to do the math.

Another figure she’s concerned about is the number of students who will buy the new, healthier lunches. Right now, she’s operating her lunch program in the black, but the increased cost of providing whole grain foods and extra fruits and vegetables, combined with the possibility that fewer children will end up in the lunch line, has her wondering about next year’s budget. The district has upped lunch prices by a quarter in anticipation of the financial burden that will be caused by the new lunch standards.

Lunch prices are holding steady in the Saratoga Springs City School District, where about 2,800 students come through lunch lines daily. School lunch program director Margaret Sullivan is excited about the new nutrition standards.

“It’s the biggest change in a generation,” she said. “I think it’s a welcome change for many.”

The food service staff in Saratoga has been prepping for the changes for years, she said. They’ve offered students taste-tests of upcoming menu items and have educated them about what’s to come. But the process hasn’t been a picnic, she admitted.

“You walk that fine line between what’s acceptable, what’s healthy and what’s the best thing that you can give them that they’re actually going to eat,” she explained.

Sullivan worries that high schoolers might miss the hearty sandwiches made with 12-inch wraps. Due to the new nutrition standards, they’ll probably only make the menu once a week. But despite the menu amendments, she doesn’t think students will exit the cafeteria with grumbling stomachs.

“If they take the fruits and vegetables, they will have a lot of food on their tray and they certainly won’t go away hungry. And we all need to be eating more fruits and vegetables, so this is an opportunity to train students on good eating habits,” she said. “And hopefully, for those students who participate in the meal [program], they’ll take that information home and they’ll share it with the rest of their family.”

Categories: Food, Schenectady County

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