How are changing nutritional standards affecting schools in Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky?

Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-14 12:00:57-05

CINCINNATI - With sodium reductions holding off for the time being, districts in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky aren’t seeing much change in nutritional standards this year in school cafeterias.

The reduction in sodium content is part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which began implementation during the 2012-13 school year. As part of the nutritional standards put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the permitted amount of sodium in foods in schools was slated to decrease over a 10-year period, with intermediate sodium targets after two and four years.

Previous updates in nutritional standards saw a reduction in sodium, sugar and fat, a transition to 100 percent whole-grain offerings and an increase in the required amounts of varied fruits and vegetables served. The sodium reductions are some of the few remaining transitions.

“It wasn’t as hard to get ready this year as it was in past years,” said Judi Schott, food service consultant for Madison Local Schools.

Although many districts experienced an initial pushback from students -- particularly related to the whole-grain foods -- food service leaders for multiple districts have noticed a leveling off of complaints.

“It has evened out,” said Andrea Whiles, food service director for Newport Independent Schools. “The kids are getting used to having more fruits and vegetables. I really think they’ve become accustomed to it, and I don’t see a whole lot of pushback from it.”

The initial pushback from nutritional standards changes seems to have leveled off, but food service officials remain apprehensive about the sodium decreases yet to come.

“It was not only schools that were forced to change,” said Amy Macechko, health and wellness coordinator for Talawanda Schools. “It was also the manufacturers of the foods.”

“If they do go with the sodium restrictions that they’re talking about, it’s going to be almost impossible for us to, and the manufacturers to ... be able to do that,” Whiles said.

In some districts, like Talawanda, educators attribute the ease of the changes so far to student engagement.

“I think our district has been extremely proactive in looking for opportunities to, you know, especially at the elementary level, engage students in the process,” said Macechko.

The district’s efforts to involve students included allowing them to pick fun, new names for vegetables on school menus, she said.

In Newport Independent Schools, two grants through the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program totaling $46,650 help bring fruits and vegetables to classrooms as snacks two or three days a week.

“Basically, it’s for them to try different fruits and vegetables, a variety that they might not otherwise have a chance to ever taste,” Whiles said.

These include anything from more expensive fruits, like berries, to exotic ones, like star fruit and dragon fruit.

“They know what an orange is, but they might not know what a tangerine is or a clementine,” Whiles said.

While the program is separate from the district’s breakfast and lunch programs, it helps familiarize kids with fruits and vegetables.

“I think it makes them more aware of fruits and vegetables, and they’re more apt to take them (at lunch),” Whiles said.