The start of a new school year this fall also marked the beginning of an overhaul of the school meal program. In January 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals that are hoped to improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids who participate in the school meal programs.
The requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is part of the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign, which was designed to get kids active.
"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," said First Lady Michelle Obama, "And when we're putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria."
At left, some Union girls enjoying the new lunches are (from L to R): Emily Gleason, Alisha Gleason, Dani Wandschneider, Kyele Clapp. Below, Brenda Rottinghaus inspects each student’s lunch tray to make sure they meet the nutritional guidelines. Far left, students line up to take advantage of the options on the salad bar.
The changes put into effect are designed to help students learn how to make healthy food choices, a skill that supporters are hoping the students will carry with them throughout their lives.
Each day, the students buying school lunches are served the main entre by the food service staff. The new requirements include increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables, reducing the sodium content, specified calorie guidelines, increasing whole grains, and limiting the amount of meat/meat alternatives and grains. The meals can also no longer contain trans fats. The entre served will adhere to these guidelines.
Without a doubt, these changes are presenting a challenge to the food service staff. The food preparation takes more time as they are required to serve more varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables. While some of these changes prove to be a challenge for the food service staff, they are adopting the changes and are starting seeing positive results as the students get used to the changes.
"Getting students and adults used to the idea of eating more fruits and vegetables, instead of grains and meat, has been a challenge. They were a little confused on what they needed to take, but I think they are starting to get used to it. I have heard positive comments on some of the new choices," said Tina Hanna, Food Services Director.
After receiving the entre, the student then makes a choice between fat-free (flavored or unflavored) and 1% (unflavored) milk. Previously, students were allowed milk of any variety of fat content with no flavor restrictions.
The next stop is the salad bar. Each student is required to select 1/2 cup of a fruit or vegetable. The new guidelines mandate a weekly requirement for dark greens, red/orange vegetables, legumes, and a starchy vegetable. If the student has not chosen 1/2 cup of a fruit or vegetable, they will be required to return back to the salad bar line or the items will be charged as individual items and not counted as a full meal. Hanna states that she has heard many positive comments from parents regarding the salad bar options.
From there, whether the student eats the meal he or she has taken is up to the student. Brenda Rottinghaus accepts payment from the students each day at the lunch line. She is responsible for inspecting each student's lunch tray to make sure they are meeting the requirements.
"There's a lot of food waste. A lot of times the students will come over and ask if they have enough on their tray and if not they have to go back and fill it up. I think the kids are afraid to ask and then they end up taking too much so that they don't have to be sent back to get more fruits and vegetables," said Rottinghaus.
The students responses to the new nutritional guidelines vary, but most of them notice the changes. One student noted that they miss the cheese that used to be served on the meatball sandwiches. Most Union High School students made remarks about not getting as much food as they used to.
"Last year we could get two rolls and now we only get one. We used to get two hot dogs and now we only get one," said student Alisha Gleason, "But I think the food tastes better now." This seems to be a common opinion with most of the students.
"We get less, but it's healthier. The only good thing is there's ala carte so you can make up for being hungry after lunch. You can get water, beef jerky and chips. I'm happy with the changes, but we could use more food though," said student Houston Freeman.
To the students, it seems that they aren't getting as much food, but they are encouraged to fill up on the salad bar, which some are taking advantage of and others aren't.
"They usually make us get our fruits and vegetables, but we don't even eat it so it's all going to waste. But you have to take it," said Gleason.
"We have to fill up on fruits and vegetables. Sometimes I eat them and sometimes I don't. Sometimes I buy something to snack on for later if I'm not full," said student Abbie Hernandez.
"I'm usually still hungry. I usually go to Casey's after and snack up on pizza," added student Emily Gleason. Other students report bringing snacks from home to help get through the day.
Tina Hanna does not feel that the students aren't being offered enough food, but that they may not have learned to transition into making healthier choices yet.
"I do not feel they do not get enough to eat. The students just need to make better choices with the increased choices of fruits and vegetables," said Hanna, "I do not think that we can feed the students enough between 11:00 and 12:00 and not have them hungry for at least a snack at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. When my children were in school and came off the bus they also wanted a snack."
In some schools across the country, student-athletes have reported being hungry and needing more food to fuel through practice. When asked if he was getting enough food as a student-athlete, Josh Clark had a few telling words.
"Usually, I'm always hungry because out of school I am used to eating about 5,000 calories a day because I like to keep up like that. At first I noticed the changes, but then I just covered my tray with vegetables," said Clark, who plays on the Union High School football team.
Clark's response is the response that officials were aiming for when the program was designed. Students are being encouraged to fill up on fruits, vegetables and healthier options. The program may take some getting used to and will require a change in habits, but officials are hoping the students will make the transition. The efforts are designed to help reduce childhood obesity and the related illnesses, which have become a growing concern throughout the nation.
But healthy habits aren't formed by one meal a day at school and parents are encouraged to lead by example at home. If parents are choosing healthy foods at home, the children are more likely to do the same.
"Encourage students to try the fruits and vegetables that we are providing. I did have one parent this weekend tell me that her Kindergarten student is eating better at home and trying more things. This is what we want to happen," said Hanna.
Changes will continue to be made throughout the coming years. Currently, at least half of the grains served must be whole grain-rich but beginning July 14, 2014, all grains must be whole grain rich. The sodium content of the food served will be gradually reduced to hit a final target in the 2022-23 school year. For high school lunches, by the 2014-15 school year, the sodium target is to use less than 1420 mg. The final target for high school lunches is to use less than 740 mg.
Tina Hanna welcomes any new recipes, as long as they are recipes that the students will actually try. Another challenge for the food service staff is finding recipes that incorporate legumes, which aren't as familiar in the Midwest diet. Hanna states that they are using more spices in the foods and also offer Mrs. Dash sodium free for students to add to their food.
While the opinions of the new nutritional guidelines are varied, the students are gradually getting used to the changes. The changes are the first major overhaul to the school lunch system in 15 years.