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New school lunch regulations worry nutrition specialists

Cost, potential waste among concerns
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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At the start of the school year, students will see some subtle, yet important changes to the food they're served in cafeterias.

Portions of the US Department of Agriculture's Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect July 1. With those changes come not only more fruits and vegetables, but also more specific requirements regarding the types of grains served and the nutritional value of food.

Suzanna Nye, chief monitor of the child nutrition programs in California, said districts will not be on their own when it comes to paying for putting more grains, fruits and vegetables on students' plates. Under the new regulations, school districts are reimbursed 6 cents for every meal served.

"The biggest needs are two-fold. Districts need more money because healthier food sometimes costs more, though it doesn't always have to, and they will have to have more standardized recipes that will assist in making those healthy foods tasty," Nye said.

The reimbursement of 6 cents per meal is not enough, not by a long shot, according to Lila McAllister, nutrition director for Placer Union High School District.

She said the added requirements will cost around 30 cents more per meal than they do now. That's because schools now have to serve students a certain amount of specific kinds of vegetables and fruits, rather than just letting students pick which ones they want to try.

"I'm concerned there's going to be a lot of waste because now they have to take it even if they don't want it," McAllister said. "Our budget is going to be tight."

Diane Brooks, food services supervisor for the Auburn Union Elementary School District, is worried she won't have room in her budget for things that have routinely been available in the past.

"Our garden bars might not be as nice as they were previously because that money needs to go toward those greens and some vegetables kids don't tend to like as much," Brooks said.

The new regulations that took effect earlier this month will impact school lunch programs. School breakfast programs won't change in terms of fruits and grains served until 2014.

One of the main parts of the new regulations that concerns McAllister and Brooks is the minimum and maximum limits set on caloric intake set for students of different ages.

In Kindergarten through fifth-grade, students will be served lunches that are between 550 and 650 calories. Grades sixth through eighth will be served a lunch of 600 to 700 calories and a high school student's lunch must range between 750 and 850 calories.

"That makes things very limited and difficult when you have a 300-pound football player who is still in great shape but still offer them the same portions as a 5-feet-tall female," McAllister said. "I think we're going to find that it's really not nutritionally balanced for high school students."

The regulations also mandate that less than 10 percent of those calories can be saturated fat.

The extra cost to school systems comes in with the vegetable subgroup requirements listed under the law. For example, while high school students will be served a minimum of five cups of vegetables throughout the course of one week, districts have to make sure those servings include certain amounts of different vegetables characterized by color. Elementary and middle school students will be served a little more than three and a half cups throughout the week.

All grades have to be served at least half a cup of dark green and starchy vegetables throughout the course of the week. Another half cup of beans or peas also has to be served.

Red or orange vegetables also have to be thrown in the mix throughout the week. High school students will also be served at least five cups of fruit every week for lunch and elementary and middle school students will get about half that.

McAllister said students are already offered a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but they don't have to take them.

"It's a great idea; we believe kids should be eating more of this stuff, but to make a child take something, I don't know, that's difficult," McAllister said. "I hope we don't see a lot of it go into the garbage."

Nye said food vendors are adjusting to the new regulations just as much as school districts are, as half of all bread products served must now be whole grains. By 2014 all bread products will have to be whole grains.

She added the transition to the new regulations can be made easier with training in from-scratch cooking and alternative cooking methods that use less grease and limited heat-and-eat products.

McAllister hopes she can get plenty of kids eating school lunch next year not only for their sake nutritionally, but also so she has those resources available.

"We charge $3 for high school lunch and to raise that again on families in the area, I just couldn't do it," McAllister said. "Hopefully we'll be able to recoup the cost if more kids eat at school because the more kids eat the better the reimbursement. It's going to be a struggle."

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.