Lunchroom lowdown: What has new legislation changed about our kids' food?
A flickering fluorescent light hovering over a stainless steel counter where bleak-faced school children shuffle their feet through the lunch line to receive their mystery meat patty on a bun with a side of syrupy fruit substance and an unfulfilled midday meal.
That's a vision of yesterday.
Today, fresh fruits and vibrant vegetables are dominating kids' vittles in lunchrooms as part of a federal push to provide nutrient-dense meals and protect students' health. A typical lunch at Discovery Middle School includes a vegetarian or entrée salad option.
"Students have been really receptive," said Barb Larson, director of food and nutrition services for Independent School District 206.
The district feeds approximately 3,400 kids every day. Larson said a lot of other schools in Minnesota that still rely on canned fruits and vegetables may have a more difficult time adapting to the legislative guidelines than ISD 206 because most of the changes proposed this year were implemented in the district many years ago.
"We're very proactive," Larson said. "Fresh fruits and vegetables are not new here."
Because the district has already canned the cans, Larson does not anticipate a large cost increase due to the new meal pattern guidelines.
Gardening projects in ISD 206 schools connect kids with their food and teach them about nutrition. Larson said students not only learn how to grow food, but benefit from other aspects that accompany gardening such as how it can calm the mind.
Students benefit from community partnerships with the Douglas County Master Gardeners, Douglas County Extension, 4-H and United Way.
"Children in our district are learning lifetime skills that will benefit their health into adulthood," Larson said. "The eight plots at the new high school are going to be a huge advantage for curriculum and life-long learning for students in our community."
Students who are feeling the most impact are in 7th and 8th grade. Larson said their meals have been reduced by 80 calories. Eighty calories is equivalent to an entire apple.
"I haven't really noticed much change," said 7th grader Emily Parent.
The most visible change is apparent at the soup and sandwich station, Larson said. Scientific research has prompted calorie restrictions, which have changed the items that can be paired together.
Previous offerings bordered on 1,000 calories for a sandwich and soup offering.
"We continue to provide hearty, homemade soups on Tuesday and Thursday, but not both soup and sandwich," Larson said. "We now offer larger fresh garden salads, fresh fruit choices and limited servings for proteins and breads."
THE COST OF CHANGE
Meals are federally subsidized, which requires that schools adhere to certain portion and nutrition standards. A lunch that cost the student $2.45 actually cost the school $3.10.
Schools must submit documentation confirming they are in compliance with the new regulations in order to receive performance-based cash assistance for their school lunch and breakfast programs. This "attestation of compliance with meal pattern requirements" is a pledge that minimum food quantities are available to students, that all products and ingredients indicate zero grams of trans fat per serving, that minimum calories for breakfasts are offered and that all Pre-K meals are compliant with current meal patterns for age and grade served.
Cashiers confirm that students' lunch trays include all the necessary components. If a tray is lacking, the student is offered the item that will complete the meal or can be charged at an a la carte rate.
"I am truly fortunate to have staff that believes in nutrition," Larson said.
Students nationwide are no longer allowed free seconds. This reduction is partly due to financial regulations and also in response to childhood obesity. Larson said this does not mean students are going hungry; they are allowed as many fresh vegetables as they want or have time to eat.
Larson explained that some schools were offering second helpings to students as a way to get them through until dinner time. However, the National School Lunch Program was only intended to get children through the school day. Larson added that the USDA Child Nutrition program cannot continue to financially support the cost of excess calories.
While some district programs offer afterschool snacks, Larson said, students and parents need to plan to bridge that gap. Eligibility for afterschool snacks depends on factors like family meal benefits and student attendance. Also, sports programs are not included in federally funded after-school snack programs.
"In all reality, not everybody can afford a snack," Larson said. ISD has been fortunate to receive a $5,000 Statewide Health Improvement Program grant to aid in providing a once a week snack for qualifying students. Larson encourages donations from the community to provide healthy snacks to students that often go without due to family circumstances.
"Schools can do a small part, but we have to work together with the parents and the community," Larson said.
Often a family will be on the border for receiving a reduced lunch benefit. Larson said families in need should apply because the program is offered and it frees up more money for healthy food at home. The program is confidential and students are not identified as receiving the benefit in the lunch line; billing is done behind the scenes.
Larson added that there are opportunities for community members to financially sponsor a child whose family may not qualify for school meal benefits.
Looking to the future, Larson sees lengths of lunch periods addressed. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables takes longer, she said, adding that ISD makes conscious efforts to cut fruit into smaller segments that are easier for kids to eat. Another thing Larson believes will be considered is a change in lowering the sodium content of school meals.