Apr 15 2013
Better nutritional options still encounter resistance, food waste
By Christopher Doering
NOKESVILLE, VA. — When diners at an exclusive food tasting recently noshed on sesame green beans and flame-roasted redskin potatoes, they weren’t celebrating at the area’s newest culinary hot spot.
Instead, these gourmands were huddled in a high school cafeteria sampling almost 40 delicacies that soon could become permanent items for thousands of children who eat lunch and breakfast in this northern Virginia school district each day.
The annual tasting show, a popular event to showcase new foods and collect input from students, parents and school staff, has taken on added significance after the approval last year of new U.S. Agriculture Department nutrition standards. School districts now must limit the calories that students consume, phase in whole grains, gradually lower sodium levels, and offer at least one fruit or vegetable per meal, among other requirements.
Schools nationwide — including South Dakota — are working to comply with these new measures by adding green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, and overhauling traditional mainstays such as pizza by substituting in low fat cheese and whole-grain crust, all within a limited budget.
But officials are aware their efforts to improve nutrition ultimately will fail if their finicky customers at more than 100,000 institutions reject the new food offerings.
School meal programs feed almost 32 million children nationwide each day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. In South Dakota, almost 107,000 students eat lunch at school every day — about 76 percent of all kids enrolled in participating state schools. An estimated 28,000 South Dakota kids also eat breakfast at school.
'Are they going to buy' food we sell?
“For each food item, we look and say: ‘Can we afford this? Is it good for them? Does it meet all the new food requirements? Those kind of things. But what’s really important is are they going to buy it if we put it out there,” said Serena Suthers, director of school food and nutrition services in Prince William County, southwest of Washington, D.C.
The challenge is to win over students such as eighth-grader Terrell Worrell, who buys a school lunch only once a week. Worrell, one of the students attending the tasting, said he was surprised to find that he liked many of the foods he tried, especially the buffalo chicken and sweet potato swirl. In the past, Worrell and his friends have thought that as the meals have become more healthful, taste hasn’t kept up.
“These examples that they’re thinking of putting in the school lunches, they seem like they’re trying to make them better because they’ve noticed that us kids don’t really like what they’ve been putting out so far,” Worrell said. He said he would be open to buying lunch more often if some of the items he enjoyed during the tasting were on the menu when he starts high school later in the fall.
New nutrition guidelines were put in place at the beginning of this school year, starting with changes to the lunch program, to address the childhood obesity epidemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 17 percent of children and adolescents are considered obese. Since 1980, the obesity rate for this group has tripled.
The new standards require lunches each week to average from 550 to 650 calories for kids in elementary school, 600 to 700 calories for those in middle school and 750 to 850 calories for high school students. An example of a typical elementary school lunch before the new standards had cheese pizza, canned pineapple, tater tots and low fat chocolate milk. Today it would be replaced by whole wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes, applesauce and low fat milk.
The new school lunch regulations have been widely criticized as too costly and not providing enough flexibility. Opponents have argued the lunches are too small and lack enough calories for active children, especially high school students who are involved in sports and other activities.
Noem: Give schools more flexibility
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a vocal critic of the new guidelines, said schools should have the flexibility to adjust the nutritional requirements to meet student needs.
“We all want our kids to eat healthier and enjoy fruits and vegetables, but the problem is that the calorie limitations have left many kids hungry,” Noem said. “While I appreciate the goals of all these changes, really what is left is a situation where we have no local control over meeting the needs of our kids or trying to balance our school budgets.”
Sandi Kramer, child nutrition supervisor in the Yankton School District, said she has spent much of the school year struggling to craft a lunch menu that keeps kids happy and adheres to new guidelines.
“There would have been a lot less feedback and negativity from all the parents and kids if we would have kind of gone into this slower,” Kramer said. “It’s been a year of transition. I wish the USDA ... had given us a year of leeway to work on making us (meet these guidelines) and work the bugs out.”
A frequent problem found in Yankton and other school districts across the country was the food waste the new fruit and vegetable requirements generated. Kramer said the problem was especially prevalent among elementary students overwhelmed by the amount of fruits and vegetables suddenly thrust upon them.
“To see a little kid, like a kindergartner, take three-fourths cup of vegetables and watch it go down the garbage is really hard,” she said.
Across the country, the foods offered to students during breakfast and lunch vary by school district. Each year, about 15 percent to 20 percent of the funding for the programs is used by the states and school districts to buy items — from unsweetened applesauce and low sodium canned beans to lean ground beef and turkey roasts — from a list of more than 180 offered by the USDA. The remaining 80 percent to 85 percent goes to states and schools, giving them the flexibility to buy the items they want, such as regionally popular foods.
School districts are left to decide their own breakfast and lunch menus, as long as they comply with federal nutrition guidelines. Ideas regularly are mined from both traditional and unusual places.
Giving students a say in the menu
Suthers said the school district holds a recipe contest among the staff to come up with suggestions. Some food items are taken directly from restaurant menus and adapted for use in the school. But it’s the input from students during the school day and at tastings such as this one that have the most influence in shaping the course of foods that make their way into the cafeteria.
“(Children) just love the idea of having some say,” Suthers said. “So many things in kids’ lives, they don’t get to have much say in, so they love this event where they get to come and give opinions to adults.”
Food goers attending the tasting at the Prince William County High School were given a one-page form to evaluate whether or not they liked the food items they tried and provide any comments.
During the two-hour event, students, parents and school staff were able to visit as many of the eight food stations as they wanted before sitting down at round tables in the cafeteria to eat.
USDA officials, who were in attendance, regularly go to tasting events around the country put on by schools. They also visit cafeterias during the day to talk with kids and staff about the food and identify growing trends.
Increasingly, the foods offered by the USDA and put on the menu by schools are being shaped by what children eat and see at home. Government officials in charge of ordering and buying food for the school lunch program said as the popularity grows of Thai cuisine, intense flavors such as buffalo wings and vegetarian options, kids have started asking for the items to be served in their cafeterias, too.
Options to reflect healthier lifestyles
In addition, as parents instill more healthful lifestyle at home, kids are expecting similar characteristics in the food they eat away from the dinner table.
“School children are becoming very sophisticated eaters,” said Laura Walter, a USDA official in charge of reviewing the foods offered to schools through the department’s Food and Nutrition Service.
Walter said sometimes the department becomes inundated with requests from school districts for certain products. The most recent delectable surprise: frozen broccoli.
“Word of mouth is spreading through the grapevine. We want this,” she said.
Items do get dropped by the USDA if they become too expensive to buy or not enough schools demand them. Batter-breaded chicken and sloppy joes are some of the most recent casualties. In their place, new items are added to the menu. Later this year, the USDA is considering letting schools buy string cheese in a single serve pack, frozen spinach and fruit cups for grab and go lunches and breakfasts.
Casey Tran, a high school senior, said at the recent tasting the food he sampled was fresher and there were more flavors than he’s used to.
“It’s pretty good compared to the stuff we have currently. I wouldn’t throw it away,” said Tran, a 17-year-old who buys lunch every day. “I’ll eat it, but it can’t compare to home cooking.”
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