Schools rush to reform lunches; more whole grains and veggies required

Aug 31, 2012

The rush is on, to get healthier lunches into public school cafeterias. But administrators say you almost need an advanced degree to comply with the latest rules.

Training for food workers amounted to two intensive days just before school started this week in Highline Public Schools, a district just south of Seattle.

"This all came down, just boom," says Chris Neal, Nutrition Services Director for Highline.

Whole grains, more vegetables, fewer calories and other changes to the national School Lunch Program were announced last January by First Lady Michelle Obama. But the details of how to translate rules into menus weren't delivered to schools here until late May.

"I think its all for the good of kids. It just involves a great deal of planning and education to put this out on a spreadsheet and make it work," says Neal.

School districts around western Washington – and across the country – are all scrambling. Seattle plans to announce how it's coping with the changes after school starts, next week.

Schools must submit all of their lunch and breakfast menus for an audit, and if any part of those menus is out of compliance, they miss out on bonus payments.

Highline thought it was ahead of the curve. Through a federal grant, they've been overhauling their menus and making them healthier. But, some of the details caught them off-guard.

Extra pressure to try a fruit or vegetable

One of the most visible changes is the requirement that every child take a portion of fruit or vegetable every day. No excuses.

The lunch line was moving slowly on the first day of school, Thursday, at Cascade Middle School, in the White Center area south of Seattle. Kids had  trouble remembering their PIN numbers, which is how you pay for lunch these days.

Then, they meet Trish Gossage, the friendly lunch lady. She offers a choice of ravioli or chicken nuggets. If they skipped the self-serve veggie and fruit bar, they get a reminder.

"Okay, make sure you grab a fruit or salad for me, hon'," she says to one seventh-grade boy. As he drops a few pieces of cut-fruit on his tray, she follows-up.  "A little more. You have to get at least a half a cup."

He frowns at the fruit. It may end up in the trash. The next kid to get a reminder says he's happy to take a banana. 

"I just didn’t know the banana was there," says Josiah, also a seventh-grader.

If kids skip the fruit and veggie section, the school district could be docked part of its payment. That would come later, when the school gets audited. But they're building habits and not taking any chances.

Another rule in play affects what veggies the kids see. Schools must serve vegetables in categories such as red, green, and leafy.

At Cascade, that translated into broccoli, carrots, peppers, and a lettuce salad.

Another new rule – calorie limits – means many middle school kids will get fewer choices. For the first time, their lunches must have fewer calories than high school lunches, and some entrees will be cut.

Limits on PBJ ... and thinner pizzas

In Kent Public Schools, one popular standby has been the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. It was available every day, no matter what else was on the menu. No more.

"We can't do that any more," says Nina Sykes, of the Kent nutrition office. "Now, it will be two or three times per week."

There are limits on how many servings of breads can be offered each week.

That particular change also means all the pizza dough has to be reformulated, with a thinner crust. The main supplier of dough for schools, Schwan Food Company of Minnesota, reportedly can’t produce the new dough fast enough – creating challenges. Most schools will use the older formula temporarily, and cut back on other bread servings.

Overall, the goals of the new lunch menus are:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.