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School lunches about to be healthier, more expensive

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By Geoff Hamill

 

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Regina Hood has a lot on her plate, while being responsible for what goes on several hundred plates each day.
Hood is director of food services for the Washington County school district, and following a new law signed by President Barack Obama, she’s about to get even busier as she looks for the healthiest meals possible for local students.
Hood and other food services directors across the nation are preparing for changes that will be coming from Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is intended to fight childhood obesity.
“It’s going to be a dramatic change,” Hood said of the new measures.
The act will not officially go into effect until the start of the 2012-13 school year, but Hood and other food services professionals are already starting to put some of the new measures in place. When the new standards go into effect, Hood said school districts have no choice but to follow them.
“If schools do not meet these standards, they are going to lose their federal funding. We have to do it,” she said.
According to Hood, some of the changes in school lunches include lower amounts of sodium, reduced starches and the addition of whole grains to the diets of school children.
“The biggest thing is the reduction of  the starchy vegetables such as corn, peas, or any type of potato,” Hood said.  “The act will limit schools to only serve one cup of starch per week.     French fries and mashed potatoes are some of the students’ favorites.”
Hood said instead of the starches, schools will substitute green, leafy vegetables, as well as red and orange vegetables.
“It is food that a lot of the students are probably not going to eat. We have implemented some whole grains and orange vegetables in the past, but it’s not what the students are used to,”  she said.  “The intent of the act is to encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones.”
Hood said she just got word of the new standards in January, but she is already making plans to start serving an updated menu as early as next school year. She said she hopes getting the students adjusted to the new menu items slowly will make the changes easier over time, rather than having them all change at once. For example, she said by the 2014-15 school year, schools will have to make the move toward whole grain products, and that has not gone unnoticed  in the school district.
While facing the risk of students not liking what is on the menu, Hood said she has come up with some options on the school menu that are currently in place, and they appear to be popular with students and parents.
“In addition to the regular menu, we now offer pizza on Mondays, a chicken product like chicken nuggets or chicken tenders on Tuesday, hamburgers or cheeseburgers on Wednesday, bosco sticks on Thursday, and then it’s cook’s choice on Friday,” Hood said. “I did that with the younger kids in mind. If there’s  something on the menu they will eat, then participation in the lunch program will stay high. Many happy parents  tell me they haven’t had to pack their child’s lunch all year.”
Hood is also hoping to put in new measures of her own, which will include two menus for local students. She said there is such a difference in what kindergarten students like as opposed to what high-school students want to eat, and she feels it’s important to give them choices.
“I plan next year to look at a 4-week cycle menu. Most schools  already have this in place” she said. “We now have one menu across the entire district.  The change  would consist of one menu for Washington County High/Middle schools and a separate menu for Washington County Elementary and North Washington.”
Participation has been high for the school lunch program, according to Hood’s numbers. In September, for example, she said the county’s schools served a total of 28,453 lunches with classes in session for 20 days that month. She credits that participation to foods the students like, including bosco sticks, which she described as a baked bread stick filled with cheese.
“I’m out in the schools quite often, and I get a lot of comments,” Hood said. “I think parents are concerned about healthy foods, but I also believe they  want to pay for a food that their child is going to eat. I know my kids are picky about their foods, and they eat the starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn. With a lot of kids, this is going to leave them only eating the meat entree such as the corn dog or pizza.”

The price of eating healthy
Eating healthy is expensive. Hood said according to the act, food service directors must increase the price for meals with the new standards and healthier foods coming to the menus. Currently, high school students pay $ $2.15 daily for lunch, while all other grades pay $1.85 per day. She added that breakfast, which has a much lower participation rate, costs $1.30 district wide.
As for the increase, Hood said it will start next school year, but the exact price will have to be approved by the local school board.
“Any time you increase the costs of foods with whole grains and fresh fruits, you have to increase prices,” she said.
Though Hood would not comment on possible price increases, she did say that the new standards come with estimates, but she added that she was not comfortable releasing those numbers since the final decision is one of the school board, and not her own.
At this time, the price changes will only affect those students who are paying regular price for lunches, according to Hood.
Hood said she has proposed to  the school board to purchase software that will help plan the healthiest meals possible. She said she is looking at a program that will allow her to key in a menu, and then see the nutritional value of the foods she has chosen, which would help her meet the requirements of healthier lunches.

Not the first changes
Healthy foods are not new to schools, and Hood said Washington County currently offers fresh fruits daily at lunch. She said the school district also serves 1-percent milk, which abides by a law passed several years ago. In the future, more changes are coming to the milk products offered to students, including the requirement that any flavored milk, such as chocolate milk, be completely fat free. Hood said that could pose some problems for finding the products, at least from what she currently sees available.
“We will go to fat free flavored milks, and we hope to start that next year, but right now, when I look at what’s offered on our bid list by Flav-O-Rich, I don’t see it available,” Hood said. “I think a lot of the vendors are going to have to make some changes in the products they offer to meet requirements.”
Hood added that the United States Department of Agriculture is already working to have meats with lower sodium levels served to students, as well as the reduction of processed meats and foods.
“Washington County school cafeterias use some processed foods.  The staff does an excellent job in their own food preparation, which limits the need for processed food that contains higher levels of sodium and calories,” she said.
The use of foods prepared in local school kitchens also saves money, according to Hood. She said in the past, local schools used pre-made items that were prepared and shipped to the schools, but they now make some of those foods on their own, and the change has made a savings because some of the processed items were noticably more expensive, according to Hood.

Let your voice be heard
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has already been signed by President Obama, but it’s not too late for parents and citizens to make comments on the new regulations for schools. To issue a comment via the Internet, visit www.regulations.gov and enter the following code in the keyword or ID field: FNS-2007-0038-0001 to leave your comments, as well as to read the entire text of the act. Comments may also be made via regular mail, addressed to Food and Nutrition Service, Child Nutrition Division, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 640, Alexandria, VA, 22302-1594.