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Healthier School Lunches Causing Headaches for Districts

New federal guidelines mean changes that may not sit well at lunch time.

New federal demands for healthier school lunches are causing a summer scramble for Long Island school districts to meet the new demands.

The real impact will likely be felt during the first weeks of school in September, when many kids begin to notice smaller portions of meat and increased portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Across the region, and the nation, districts are struggling with both the need to match new guidelines and to communicate the changes to parents and students.

Districts are having to respond to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making the first major changes in school meal requirements in 15 years which, the government says, reflect the latest nutrition science and the circumstances of America’s schools.

The new federal guidelines require most schools to "increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat- free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements," according to the program's summary.

On the surface, the concept makes sense, but the changes are detailed and complicated.

For example, the new rules dictate the kinds of specific vegetables that must be provided, breaking down the components into items such as "red" and "dark green" vegetables. The rules generally lower the weight of the minimum daily requirements for meat in the lower grades.

And gone are the small packages of whole milk; now milk must be 1 percent or nonfat. Those tasty chocolate milk packages are history.

Long Island school nutrition directors are attending a seminar this week on how districts and their contracted food providers can meet the requirements, school officials said.

"Students will definitely notice a difference," said Holly Von Seggern, vice president of marketing for Whitsons Culinary Group of Islandia, which serves about 20 school districts across Long Island.

Whitsons has been preparing for the changes for almost two years and providing a range of new options for its districts to get kids used to the changes, Von Seggern said. They've even recommended that parents offer whole grains and more fruits and bean dishes during the summer to prepare kids for the changes.

In September, a school lunch plate will look different, she said. "They will notice a smaller burger and more vegetables," she said. The buns will be smaller, the portions different. 

Earlier this month, thousands of food service workers and nutrition experts from around the country gathered in Denver at the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association, where the new standards were a big topic of conversation, according to a July 11 New York Times story.

The U.S.D.A.'s report said the meal program changes are based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. It claims they are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children, and "help mitigate the childhood obesity trend," according to the federal report.

Local districts were expected to comply with the changes by July 1.

The impact, however, is likely to be heard during the opening weeks of school, when kids and parents begin complaining about smaller portions.

Some school leaders said they expect some children and, in turn, their parents, will find the portions insufficient for hungry teenagers. And while some school officials expect to hear complaints, they are plan to mail out information in advance to explain the changes  and tell parents and students can do.

One option, as always, will be to pack your own lunch. The federal government has no say on brown bagging it.

Linda Otta August 02, 2012 at 02:19 PM
It will only cost us more and the free lunches expand, more people (46% more on food stamps with the current Presidency), I heard the cost of this years lunch is going up? Is this true? I have friends that are teachers. They say many kids on the free lunch program come in with money for snacks everyday but the lunch we tax payers provide goes in the garbage. Maybe the government needs to dictates to the free lunchers that you can't buy a snack if you food (being paid for by someone else) goes in the garbage especially if your parents can afford to give you @2 everyday for snacks.
Linda Otta August 02, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Brown Bag it all you want. Your still paying for hot lunch for a whole bunch of other peoples kids.
Mary Z August 02, 2012 at 11:46 PM
Linda - if that is the case then what do you suggest? We all have only one life with limited time. Should we waste it constantly fighting everything and every issue? We will brown bag it for the next two tears and pray that the gov't stays out of those bags and my kitchen!
Mary Z August 02, 2012 at 11:51 PM
One last comment - I don't ever remember anybody ever asking us (the parents) what we think the kids should be eating? We cook our children meals every single day and are truly the experts on what kids like to eat! Instead th have a so-called expert in charge calling the shots! So done with it all! Home schoolers have the right idea!
Lunchlady August 26, 2012 at 09:15 PM
Not to mention that the additional servings of fruit/vegetables that are required now on the meal has created additional prep time for the crew in the public high school kitchen I manage....districts in this ecomony are struggling financially and cannot always hire the additional staff needed to increase production....this will be a stressful school year.....


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