Are our kids getting enough to eat in school? That is a question that has been inundating the media, and weighing heavily on the hearts of parents since new guidelines were issued last Spring.
With a heavy push by First Lady Michelle Obama, effective this school year the USDA made its first major changes in school meals in 15 years. While the reforms were designed to offer kids more nutritious meals, and in turn raise a healthier generation, the new guidelines have been met with some resistance - by both students and parents.
Students and teachers at a Kansas high school created a “we are hungry” music video that has gone viral, and reports of students protesting their school meals have made waves across the country. However, those protests do not seem to be the response everywhere.
Here in Broken Bow the reaction to the new guidelines has not been nearly as dramatic. Though not without challenges, BBPS Food Service Director Steve Watson says he sees the students at least willing to give it a try.
Watson knew the changes were imminent, and tried to stay ahead of the curve by introducing the students to some of the new menu items last year. He anticipated the whole-grain products would take some getting used to, so Broken Bow schools began using whole grain breads and some whole grain pastas last school year - before it was mandated by the USDA to do so.
“I think that’s one reason there hasn’t been a huge upheaval in Broken Bow - besides the peanut butter and jelly being gone - and that’s a big one. That’s the biggest complaint we have,” says Watson.
That is a complaint that Watson, himself shares. The school used to put peanut butter and jelly out on the bar, allowing students to help themselves to however much of that they wanted at no extra charge. The USDA has taken that away.
Watson says he is not happy with that decision. While kids can pay to get second helpings, the peanut butter and jelly offered an alternative to those students who can’t afford to pay extra for more food every day. That is one of the things in the new guidelines he would like to see changed.
The way it is set up now, offering the peanut butter and jelly puts the school over the maximum protein amount they can offer, which in turn makes the meal itself non-reimbursable.
Watson explains that should an inspector come in and find the school is violating the guidelines, the USDA could choose to take back the money it has reimbursed the district for all of the meals for that day, week, or however far back they want to go. That could cost the district thousands of dollars; and that, says Watson, is not a chance he is willing to take.
Watson says the portion sizes have remained pretty close to the same this year as last year, with the requirement of whole grains being one of the biggest changes. All bread products - rolls, buns, pizza crust, and even the breading on the chicken nuggets - must be whole grain.
“The kids do kind of wrinkle up their noses when they see the macaroni and cheese, and it’s brown,” says Watson. “It’s just a learning curve for everyone. It’s going to be a challenge for awhile.”
Another change has been with milk, which can be at most 1 percent fat, while flavored milk, such as chocolate or strawberry, must be fat-free. BBPS implemented that change last year.
The minimum calories allowed per lunch were reduced, and a calorie maximum was set for the first time.
Now, lunches are capped at:
• 650 calories for grades K-5
• 700 calories for grades 6-8.
• 850 calories for grades 9-12
To qualify as a reimbursable meal, a student must have at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetable per meal. While the fruit and veggie bar is new to many schools, Broken Bow has been offering it for awhile now. Students can have as much as they want from the fruit and veggie bar.
New this year, meals must also include vegetable subgroups of dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy and "other."
For example, broccoli and romaine lettuce qualify as dark green, red peppers and carrots as red/orange, hummus and bean burritos as legumes, corn and potatoes as starchy, and onions and cucumbers as other.
Students in Broken Bow also have three entree options each day, and they are encouraged to share their opinions with the staff.
“We encourage the kids to let us know if there is something on their plate they don’t like, and we will switch it out for them,” Watson said.
Advisory meetings are held twice a year to give students and parents an opportunity to give their input on the food program. A comment box is set up in the lunch room, and students are encouraged to use it.
“We want to make sure the kids like what they are eating. We want the kids participating in the lunch program,” says Watson.
There have been some down sides to the new guidelines. Watson says the school has seen a slight increase in waste - especially on the days when a lot of whole grain products are served, such as pizza. The school used to serve Pizza Hut pizzas on Fridays, but can no longer do that because of the whole grain crust requirement.
Watson says he has also seen an increase in food expense. Buying the whole grain and healthier food products is costly, and the new guidelines have forced the kitchen staff to prepare more items from scratch. While Watson says that is not necessarily a bad thing, it has added to the budget by adding some additional hours in that department.
On the upside, Watson notes that the whole grain products tend to be fresher - with softer breads and rolls. And unlike some school, participation in the food program in Broken Bow has remained about the same. The school serves 600-650 students per day, and with an open campus the higher the grade level, the lower the percentage of participants in the school lunch program.
Watson reminds parents of the importance of filling out the free/reduced lunch forms sent home by the school - even if they do not plan to participate in the program. That data is used to determine state aid funding, and even helps determine food program reimbursements for local day cares.
“While we serve about 80-85 percent of the freshman class, we only serve about 10 percent of the seniors,” Watson explains.
While he says he agrees that childhood obesity is an issue that does need to be addressed, he is not convinced it is just a lunch issue. In his opinion kids just need more activity.
“Parents need to get the kids up off the couch and outside to play. Take away the movies and video games and get them moving,” says Watson.
He does think a lot of the new USDA guidelines are on target - “it just needs to be tweaked a little bit.”
For now his hands - like those of every other lunch program director - are tied. He has no choice but to follow the guidelines that have been issued, and do his best to help his staff create meals the students will learn to like.
As for whether or not these new guidelines will actually help reduce childhood obesity - that remains to be seen.