Local students will see changes in their lunch and breakfast trays this fall following the approval of new meal standards by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new standards apply to all schools participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Every public school in Christian County participates in the programs. The new standards require schools to serve fruit and vegetables to students daily, increase the amount whole grain-rich foods and limit calories based on students’ age.

The new standards also require schools to serve only low-fat or fat-free milk and regulate the sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content in meals. The requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010, and will be implemented over the next three years.

According to USDA, the new meal standards will affect nearly 32 million students.

Local costs

Sandra McIntosh, food services director for Christian County PublicSchools, said on average 7,456 Christian County students participate in the National School Lunch Program everyday while 3,923 students use the breakfast program daily.

McIntosh doesn’t expect the new standards to affect meals too much next year. She said she is already following many of the new standards, serving mostly whole grains, only low-fat and fat-free milk and making fruits and vegetables available to students.

While the schools only served fruits and vegetables at lunch previously, McIntosh said they will now have to serve them at breakfast as well. In order to meet the daily fruit and vegetable requirement, McIntosh worries that she may have to start giving students plates with fruits and vegetables already on them.

“That is a waste right there because it means you are preparing more plus it is going to go in the trash,” McIntosh said. “That is something that comes from the government, and we can’t stop it.”

McIntosh’s office is reimbursed by the USDA for program meals. Meals are sold at three different levels — paid, reduced and free — and McIntosh receives different reimbursements for each level.

According to the USDA, the new standards will cost $3.2 billion to implement. USDA will allocate 6 cents more per meal to help cover the additional costs. Lisa Gross, spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Education, said KDE hasn’t analyzed whether the increase will cover the higher costs.

McIntosh doesn’t expect it will. She’s accumulated more than $2.1 million in food costs through this school year and expects a 10 to 25 percent increase with the new standards.

As strict as possible?

While some people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, have championed the new standards, others think they fail to address key foods. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, helped formulate the standards and said the USDA originally limited the amount of french fries students could be given to two servings per week.

While pizza can still be served to students, the USDA wanted to stop considering it a vegetable under the new standards, Wootan said. On both changes, she said, Congress forced the USDA to change its course.

“Our hope was that Congress would stay out of it and leave the standards to the experts at USDA,” she said. “In this case, Congress was hearing a lot from potato growers, french fry manufacturers, pizza manufacturers. They decided to step in.”

Looking at the new standards, some of the changes from previous requirements seem marginal. Schools previously had to serve 1.5 to 2 ounces of meat/meat alternative to students each day. Under the new standards, kindergarten through fifth-grade students will be served 8-10 ounces a week, sixth- through eighth-graders will receive 9-10 ounces weekly and grades nine through 12 will be served 10-12 ounces weekly.

Wootan agreed that the new meat standard doesn’t represent much of a change. By changing from a daily to weekly standard though, she said USDA wanted to give schools more flexibility.

Under the new standards, schools can serve meals with high meat content one day and low meat content the next and have both go toward their weekly requirement, she said.

The major changes, Wootan thinks, are in fruit, vegetable and whole grain levels. Schools were only encouraged to serve whole grains previously. Now, at least half of school grains will have to be whole grain rich by July 1. By 2014, schools will have to serve only whole grains.

Schools previously only had to serve half to three-fourths of a cup of fruit or vegetables each day. They will now have to serve three-fourths of a cup to one cup of vegetables and half of a cup to one cup of fruit each day.

There will also be weekly requirements for legumes, dark green and red/orange vegetables. Dr. Janet Mullins, an associate professor in food and nutrition at University of Kentucky, said fruits and vegetables are key to helping children fight obesity and high blood pressure.

“We know that plant-based foods, particularly the colorful ones, can help reduce disease risk,” Mullins said. “Today’s children need to control their body weight and even reduce risk for diabetes. Eating more vegetables is a step in the right direction.”

Nutritional challenges

McIntosh said the lower sodium requirements and calorie levels present a challenge in creating menus. For lunch, schools previously had to serve at least 664 calories to kindergarten through sixth-grade students and 825 calories to seventh- through 12th-grade students. For breakfast, they had to serve at least 554 calories to all students.

Kindergarten through fifth-grade students will now have to be served 550-650 calories, sixth through eighth grade will receive 600-700 and ninth through 12th grade will be served 750-800. For breakfast, kindergarten through fifth grade will be served 350-500 calories, sixth through eighth grade will receive 400-550 and ninth through 12th grade will be served 450-600.

Schools previously had no target goals for sodium. Starting in the 2014-15 school year though, kindergarten through fifth-grade students can be served no more than 1,230 milligrams of sodium for lunch, sixth through eighth grade no more than 1,360 milligrams and ninth through 12th grade no more than 1,420 milligrams.

At breakfast, kindergarten through fifth grade will be served no more than 540 milligrams, sixth through eighth grade no more than 600 milligrams and ninth through 12th grade no more than 640 milligrams. Target levels for sodium will again be lowered for the 2017-18 and 2022-23 school years.

Wootan expects the new sodium levels will require major shifts by schools and food manufacturers.

“Schools can’t just change their recipes because they are relying on premade and processed foods,” Wootan said. “They need the food manufacturers to reformulate the product in order to bring the numbers down in order for schools to be compliant.”

Wootan expects schools will come up with new ways to distribute sodium to comply with the standards. In some cases, she said, a school could focus most of a meal’s sodium in an item like a sandwich and serve it with low sodium sides like fruit or carrots.

Mullins said that while lower sodium is important nutritionally, she expects it will place a heavy burden on schools. She thinks lowering sodium content needs to start with food companies.

“As food manufacturers begin to reduce sodium in products available for school food service, it would be feasible to lower the content in meals,” Mullins said. “Also, by serving more vegetables and fruits with less meats and grains, the sodium could be reduced.”

McIntosh said lowering sodium levels affects how meals taste and makes kids less likely to eat school-provided food. McIntosh receives no money from the school system for her program, funding it completely through lunch fees and reimbursements. With changing the standards, she worries about student participation in the meal programs.

“We are going to have to serve a menu that students will eat,” she said.

REACH DENNIS O’NEIL at 270-887-3237or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.



QuickInfo: New requirements

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved new meal standards in January for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. On average, more than 7,000 Christian County students use the lunch program each day while almost 4,000 students use the breakfast program. Under the new standards, schools must:

  •  Make fresh fruit and vegetables available to students at both breakfast and lunch.
  •  Increase students’ fruit and vegetable intake.
  •  Serve only fat-free or 1 percent low-fat milk.
  •  Make at least half of grains served whole grain-rich.
  •  Regulate sodium, fat and trans fat content in foods.
  •  Serve within specific calorie levels according to a student’s grade level.

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