By CRISTIN REECE
In a push to help Texas children make smarter choices about what they eat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is beefing up its measures to eliminate certain types of food from school menus and school vending machines.
The Associated Press reported last week the USDA’s newest rules expand the child nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010, and are the latest in a long list of changes designed to make foods served in schools more healthful and accessible.
Nutritional guidelines for the subsidized lunches were revised last year and put in place last fall. The 2010 child nutrition law also provided more money for schools to serve free and reduced-cost lunches and required more meals to be served to hungry kids.
“These improvements to the school meal programs, largely based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children, and help mitigate the childhood obesity trend,” states the USDA’s 81-page final summary of the new mandate, www.fns.usda.gov.
A couple of the biggest changes under the new mandate would institute a near-ban of high-calorie sports drinks and candy bars in vending machines and limits to what a school cafeteria could serve on its “a la carte” menus and snacks sold around the school.
“We’re actually ahead of the game,” said Mimi Spreen, Palestine Independent School District’s director of dining services. “We don’t have many vending machines at our schools and the ones we do have haven’t offered candy bars or high-calorie drinks in the three years I’ve been here. They only offer water and 100 percent juices.”
The new rules, proposed in February and made final last week, also would allow states to regulate student bake sales. Officials said the new guidelines would not apply to after-school concessions at school games or theater events, food brought from home for classroom celebrations, or anything students bring for their own personal consumption.
Spreen said the rules have created some problems for extra-curricular fundraising efforts, since traditionally many of them rely on sales of cookies, cookie dough and candy.
“It’s been an issue,” Spreen said. “They (fundraiser items) are still allowed to be sold, they just can’t be sold during school serving times – from the first bell of the day through the last bell of the day.”
At a congressional hearing, a school nutritionist said last month some schools have had difficulty adjusting to the 2012 changes, and the new “a la carte” standards could also be a hardship.
“It’s tough to follow the very strict rules and still be able to provide something the students want to eat,” Spreen said. “Before, lunch had to include a half a cup of veggies a day, but now we have to offer a cup of an orange vegetable or a cup of leafy green vegetable or a cup of a starchy vegetable – it’s fun sometimes to try and figure it all out.
“We even have a spreadsheet that we plug potential menus into, that helps tell us where we might need to make changes to comply.”
Sometimes, though, meeting those requirements makes some dishes extremely repetitious, which makes students less likely to choose that dish.
The Government Accountability Office reported visiting eight districts around the country and found in most districts, students were having trouble adjusting to some of the new foods, leading to increased food waste and decreased participation in the school lunch program.
“For example, (for reimbursed lunches) at the high school campus we have to offer at least five items and students have to take a minimum of three items each day and one of them has to be a fruit or vegetable,” Spreen explained. “It’s hard to get students to choose a fruit or veggie, especially when they’ve seen carrots on the menu over and over and over. We even get asked, usually closer to the end of the year, ‘do we have to have carrots again?’ Yes, yes we do. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Spreen said district officials have been proactive in doing what they can to make serving students a little easier.
“The district is actively upgrading our kitchen equipment as needed,” she explained. “Like a the new high school, we’ve got a new Combi-oven. It’s a combination steam, convection and regular oven and we can bake French fries or breaded chicken patties in it that taste like they’ve been deep fat fried.
“We can still give the kids something they want, that still tastes good too.”
Texas schools omitted all deep-fat fried foods from their menus in 2008, according to Spreen.
One principle of the new rules is not just to cut down on unhealthy foods but to increase the number of healthier foods sold. The standards encourage more whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
Spreen said, fortunately, PISD’s suppliers and vendors have more than met the challenge of getting those healthier offerings to the schools.
“We use Borden, Flower’s Bakery, Cisco – they’ve all been great,” she said. “They know what the rules are and are very in tune with how stringent they are. It’s very seldom we have to make substitutes.”
Spreen said the district’s cafeteria budget has gone up recently, but attributes that to rising food costs in general.
“Prices are just up on meat, dairy – I don’t think the stricter rules have much, if anything, to do with it,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.