Dec 11 2012

Argus Leader: School lunches might lighten up on veggies

USDA pressured over concerns about too much waste, too little protein

The Department of Agriculture is responding to parents, politicians and meal planners by softening its push toward more healthful school lunches.

For the rest of the school year, schools will be allowed to serve as much meat and grains as they want, as long as they don’t exceed per-meal limits on total calories. Meal planners welcome the flexibility but still have concerns about the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act, which went into effect this year.

“Part of me is happy and part of me is just frustrated,” said Sandi Kramer, child nutrition supervisor for the Yankton School District. “I’m glad they’re listening to us; I just wish they’d listened to ussooner.”

The meal guidelines have forced schools to double the amount of fruits and vegetables they serve, while capping calories and cutting back on sodium. School officials say students now are throwing away much of their meals, particularly the fresh produce, and the 850-calorie limit on high school meals are leaving many students hungry, especially athletes.

The biggest concern, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is new limits on grains and meats or meat alternatives.

“This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week,” Vilsack wrote in a letter Friday to members of Congress.

Brandon Valley schools used to allow students to take an extra slice of bread to fill up. They stopped doing so this year when limits on grains went into effect. They might bring the option back now, but officials are leery of making too many changes. .

“It’s a positive move for us and, hopefully, we’ll see this extended permanently,” said Gay Anderson, Brandon Valley’s food service director.

Although schools now can hand out extra bread or increase meat portion sizes, Anderson said they still have to watch that they don’t exceed calorie maximums.

In Yankton, Kramer plans to incorporate more meat or bread on occasion. She tries to get as close as possible to the 850-calorie limit for high school meals, and a couple times a month has used small servings of pudding or Jell-O to do it; the USDA’s recent decision will allow her to serve a larger bun or serving of meat instead.

But Kramer would like to see more changes, such as a modest increase in the calorie ceiling. She also finds it difficult to find legumes that students will eat and thinks three-quarters of a cup of vegetables is too much for elementary school students.

Anderson wants the USDA to relax its limits on protein for school breakfasts, and shares Kramer’s concerns about wasted food. Brandon Valley has studied its food waste and found 30 percent of fruits and more than 50 percent of vegetables served end up in the trash.

“The waste is extremely high,” Anderson said. “We need to fix that.”

Wasted food was one of the problems Rep. Kristi Noem raised in letters to the USDA. Vilsack said they would study that in 2014-15.

In addressing the problem of hungry students, Vilsack gave no indication USDA would move on calorie limits. Instead, he suggested families and sports teams bring food to supplement the taxpayer-subsidized meals, and noted that students are allowed to buy additional food at school.

“New school meals are designed to meet only a portion of a child’s nutritional needs over the course of the school day,” Vilsack wrote.

Noem said she will continue to press the USDA to provide schools with flexibility on meal standards.

“It is clear that the pressure from students, parents and food service directors has put USDA on notice,” Noem said.

The Government Accountability Office recently agreed to study implementation of the meal changes.

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