MAINEVILLE, Ohio - When kids start school in the next few weeks, some will find their food options have changed since school let out.
Many schools in Greater Cincinnati have modified meal offerings to meet new guidelines set by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
“My goal is to serve the healthiest possible foods that students will accept,” said Rachel Tilford, food service director for Little Miami Local School District.
What is changing?
As of July 2012, most schools were required to comply with standards that included increased availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk. Other changes included the reduction of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in foods offered. Meals also are required to meet calorie restrictions, based on age or grade groups.
Many changes were expected to be enforced immediately, but some areas were afforded incremental modification.
While schools are required to offer whole grains, only half the grains were required to be whole-grain rich when the rule first went into effect. Within two years of implementation, all grains were required to be whole-grain rich. The reduction of sodium is also a gradual change. The decrease is required to take place over a 10-year period, with intermediate sodium targets at two and four years after implementation.
Coneys are out. Fries a no longer fried.
Although the new standards were first implemented during the 2012-2013 school year, Tilford spent much of her summer preparing for the whole-grain and sodium targets for the 2014-2015 school year.
To meet the standards, she eliminated a cheese coney from the menu and replaced it with a smaller, lower-sodium hot dog. French fries also got an upgrade. District cafeterias have not had fryers for years and have served baked fries that are low in sodium. However, the seasoning used on the fries added sodium. The fries will now be served plain, and students will have the option to add garlic, ranch or original spicy flavoring themselves from a sodium-free seasoning station.
“Hopefully, they’ll enjoy their fries even more because they get to choose how they’re seasoning them,” Tilford said.
The seasonings are primarily intended for fries, but students will be able to use them on other foods as well.
Whole grain offerings also have been modified for the new school year. When Tilford began working in the district in 2013, about 75 percent of the grains available to students were whole grains. Now, all grain offerings are whole grain.
The challenges of change
The switch to 100 percent whole-grain has been met with student resistance. Biscuits, tortillas and pastas-- particularly macaroni and cheese made with whole-wheat pasta--are especially prone to scrutiny.
“Kids eat what they enjoy. If they don’t like it, they won’t eat it,” Tilford said.
When students skip lunch, or part of lunch, they go back to class hungry, which can distract them from learning the lessons they need to.
“Our concern is preparing kids to learn and nutrition is a big part of that,” said Superintendent Greg Power.
Reducing sodium can also be difficult. The 2014-2015 school year marks the first of three sodium reduction targets. The district meets the requirements, but the anticipated reduction of sodium levels in the 2017-2018 school year will be “very challenging,” and the menu will look much different.
Changes to snack rules may pose challenges, too. Smart Snacks in School standards apply to all foods sold in school that are outside the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.
Under the standards all snacks must:
- be 200 calories or less
- contain less than 35 percent calories from fat
- contain ess than 10 percent calories from saturated fat
- have less than 35 percent sugar by weight
- have 230 milligrams of sodium or less.
Portion sizes may have to be reduced to meet calorie restrictions, Tilford said.
“The new guidelines are very new … I think it’s going to be a learning experience for kids as well as parents,” Power said.
Keeping students excited
Despite the difficulties, Tilford is continually looking for ways to keep students excited about food options.
“It’s very important for us to serve healthy meals, but if the kids won’t accept it, it’s not nutritious,” she said.
One way she hopes to do this is through offering more vegetable toppings and pairings for students. Although pickle relish may not be offered, students can add cucumber relish to hot dogs. Lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber and spinach will be available for sandwiches.
Little Miami Intermediate School students have the opportunity to take part in growing a vegetable garden, which yields produce that is served in their cafeteria.
“It does get them a lot more excited to eat vegetables,” Tilford said.
Student and adult volunteers teamed up to plant sweet potatoes, red potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables during the last week of the 2013-2014 school year.
Many of the vegetables will be served on the school salad bar with a sign posted to inform students of the featured items. Those not served on the salad bar will be used in soups during the fall.
Students will work with volunteers to plant more vegetables in the fall during their Extra Time/Extra Help period, which is set aside for enrichment and intervention.
“It’s a nice project,” said Dawn Gasper, who manages the garden and is a guidance counselor at Little Miami Intermediate School.
Although it is challenging scheduling students for weeding and watering over the summer, they enjoy participating during the school year.
“During the school year, the kids like to come out and weed and pick. It’s nice for them to understand where their food comes from,” Gasper said.
Offering a variety of options
Although some students who have been in the district for years may be reminiscent for days of fewer restrictions, new students and parents seem open to trying the school’s offerings.
“They’re very impressed by the variety of choices offered,” Gasper said.
Although there have been changes, food service staff do their best to keep the options tasty and nutritious. Because the staff members like to cook from scratch, they can control what goes into food, reducing sodium and fat while enhancing flavor with herbs and spices.
“It’s important to us to present meals (kids will) take and enjoy,” Tilford said.