Gone are the days of school menus being planned around government commodities, and no more will school cooks be found jotting down their proposed menus based on what was available at a reasonable cost. Those highly anticipated Friday menus of chili and cinnamon rolls are likely a thing of the past. No more fried chicken, chocolate chip cookies or cherry pie either.
Making their appearance are half-sized cups of tomatoes, carrots, and pineapples, along with other fruit choices that are canned in light syrup, water or fruit juice. More dried fruit is appearing as a menu choice, and green vegetables are often in the form of spinach, romaine lettuce and broccoli. Whole grain-rich breading is appearing on meats and poultry that is baked, not fried.
The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama this year as part of her Let's Move! campaign and signed into law by her husband.
The new meal plans are aimed at combating childhood obesity and childhood hunger and preventing diseases like diabetes and heart disease that come as a result of a pattern of obesity.
Beginning with the current 2012-13 school year, new guidelines are in place, marking the first time in 15 years that significant changes in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs have come into play.
Most changes in the School Lunch Program are already being introduced. For the School Breakfast Program, changes will be implemented gradually, beginning with the 2013-14 school year.
So, what are the most significant changes?
New regulations have been established for calorie, fat, trans fat and sodium intake.
The changes require that at least 1/2 cup of either a fruit or vegetable is selected by students each day; that an increased variety of vegetables, including subgroups of dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy vegetables and other vegetables, are offered as well.
Additionally, new daily minimums and weekly minimums and maximums have been established.
A big push for whole grains requires at least half of the grains offered to students to be "whole grain-rich." Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, all grains offered will be required to be whole grain-rich.
Daily minimum grain requirements are one ounce for K-8 and two ounces for high school students, not to exceed 10 to 12 ounces for the week.
Beginning next year, all grains must be whole grain rich, including pizza crust, breading on chicken nuggets, etc.
Fruits without sugar, only fresh, or canned in light syrup, water or fruit juice are acceptable, along with dried fruit.
In addition, unflavored milk must be either one percent low-fat or fat-free. All flavored milk must be fat-free.
Every school meal under the new plan offers five meal components that include meat or a meat alternative, grain, fruit, a vegetable and milk. There are three groups of guidelines: kindergarten through grade five, grades six through eight, and grades nine through 12.
To be specific, the meat or meat alternate requirement offers one ounce of either for students through eighth grade. For high school students, the volume of meat increases to two ounces, not to exceed 10-12 ounces on a weekly basis.
Some sweet foods are permitted under the new mandates, but no more than one grains/breads serving per day may be a dessert, and sweet snack foods should not be served as part of a snack more than twice a week. Pie crust, when made with enriched or whole-grain meal or flour are served, as permitted under the new plan, as are non-sweet snack products such as hard pretzels, hard bread sticks, and chips made from enriched or whole-grain meal or flour.
Quantity and quality
While most welcome the healthier choices, portion size seems to be the significant issue. The same size portion is offered to a small-frame sixth grade girl as is offered to a 5'10" football player in the eighth grade. The quantity of food offered, however, sometimes appears to fall short for hungry and growing middle school and high school students.
"The main complaint at the high school," says Principal Corey Mouser, "is not getting enough to eat."
While the local administration is well aware of the obesity problem that exists in school aged children, they also recognize that limited portions do present a problem.
"The district is looking at ways to supplement the meals," says Dexter Supt. Dr. Thomas Sharp. "The school does not want the school breakfast and lunch program to be utilized only for those students whose families are economically unable to send food from home or purchase more expensive a la cart items."
High school and middle school students in Dexter still have the option to purchase a la carte items, but at a cost.
"Our hands are tied in some respects," Sharp says. "We have to closely look at calories -- even in something like salad dressing -- when offering extra items."
When the school year began, Sharp says, the number of students bringing a boxed lunch seemed to be on the rise. That number has reportedly tapered off in recent weeks, Sharp says, and the current number of students eating a school lunch is approaching the norm.
The element of choice
A visit to an elementary cafeteria ascertains that the authors of the newly implemented guidelines likely have never worked in a school cafeteria.
By all accounts, the most significant obstacle initially in complying with the new rules deals with the element of student choices. The new rules state that all students -- yes, even kindergartners -- will be allowed to choose two of the five meal components. They are required, however, to take one-half or one-quarter cup of a fruit or vegetable, whether or not they are going to eat them. Additional fruit and vegetable cups are available upon request. And so, a line of 190 kindergarten students, which is about the current enrollment at Dexter's Southwest Elementary School, inches along as children pick and choose what they want and what they don't want placed on their daily plate. While the backlog presented a problem early in the school year, Southwest Principal Sherry Matthews says they've managed to work the problem out.
"The portions for the elementary students seem to be fine," Matthews says. "The students seem to like having choices and OPAA (Dexter Schools' food service program) put in another serving line to accommodate the large KDG group this year. That really helped a great deal."
At T.S. Hill Middle School, eighth grade student Hayley Hare says she likes the new program. "I like the choices," she says. "They're good."
Seventh grader Bradley Atkins says while the food is good, he'd like to see more of it on his plate. "There's just not enough of it," he contests.
With the first quarter of school ending Friday, the local system has worked out a lot of the "bugs" in the new lunch program that have helped things run more smoothly in the four cafeterias across the Dexter School District. Students are moving through the lines at a quicker pace than in late August, and the food choices seem to come more easily.
The long term results will come in the form of a more fit and healthier student body in the years to come.