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Forget soda pop and Wonder bread. Across the country, school kids are filling their lunch trays with skim milk and whole grains in response to the most recent update to the National School Lunch Program. And while the transition from grease to greens hasn’t been easy, the vast majority of schools are in support of the new nutrition standards set forth in 2012 by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
The degree to which schools have found success with the program largely depends on the creativity of the nutrition directors and cafeteria chefs, kids’ prior familiarity with nutritious foods, and an active response to student feedback on the part of the school.
“We see a lot of school meal programs that are really creative in trying to educate students about the fruits and vegetables offered,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. “These folks not only want their kids and their students to eat healthy, but they don’t want the food getting thrown away, either.”
Participating in produce-focused programs such as Harvest of the Month, sending home informative materials to parents and encouraging interactive activities such as planting school gardens are all ways in which schools are easing the transition so that the produce is not an unfamiliar and unwelcome shock in the cafeteria.
“They might hand out fact sheets…to try and incorporate information about (the produce) into the curriculum,” Pratt-Heavner said. “They might have a fun school program where the dietician comes in and talks to them about how it’s grown locally and why it’s good for you. We’ve seen programs that send take home materials…because they know that if parents are serving the items at home, the kids are more likely to try them in the cafeteria.”
These additional programs are not federally mandated, so it’s up to the school to figure out how to best address their kids’ specific needs. Educational programming is especially helpful in areas where children have never been exposed to whole grains or leafy greens, where it is more of a challenge to get kids to try new produce, according to Pratt-Heavner.
“If you’re in a school district where kids like their potatoes, peas and corn, you might be having a slightly harder time getting (acceptance of) some of those other vegetables, some of the whole grain items,” she said. “So it certainly varies from one community to the next. And some schools might be having a little more difficulty meeting our standards as others.”
In an effort to identify options that meet the new standards but still appeal to student tastes, schools are tinkering with their menus and forming student advisory councils to taste test these potential new items. The Guilford County School district has directly benefitted from taste tasting based on their involvement in the North Carolina Child Nutrition Procurement Alliance, which is made up of 87 member schools districts that participate in obtaining high quality, reasonably priced food for schools.
“We get to get kids involved, give them food in all different selections, give them a survey, they like it, they don’t like it, what would they like to see,” said Jim Faggione, director of school nutrition for Guilford County Schools. “We share that with the Alliance group and that helps us make market decisions for how we’re going to spend the money in coming years.”Financial Heartache
For some schools, it’s balancing the high cost of healthy foods with low reimbursement rates that causes the most strain. The extent to which the meals are reimbursed is dependent upon the family’s socioeconomic status; children receiving free and reduced price meals receive greater reimbursement than a child paying full price, although every meal is subsidized to some extent.
Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder of theVoorheesville School District near Albany, NY said because her district only has 6% of students on free and reduced lunches, the reimbursement rates weren’t covering the expenses.
“The school lunch program is supposed to be self-sustaining, but it wasn’t for us after we changed the guidelines,” Thayer Snyder said. “Whenever you’re having a macro entity like the federal government address issues for a micro entity, it just doesn’t work. And that’s what we are. A micro entity that doesn’t have an obesity issue, and doesn’t make enough on the reimbursements that justifies participating.”
By the end of the third month of the first quarter, the Voorheesville school district had lost $30,000, and Thayer Snyder decided to drop the federal lunch program. The district has since increased the amount of protein in the lunches and created alternative menus with larger portion sizes.
“I think we are doing a way better job right now feeding our children hearty, healthy lunches,” Thayer Snyder said. “We didn’t give up nutrition. We just gave up the federal program.”
Superintendent Gary Lewis of the Catlin Community school districtin Catlin, Ill. says portion size was an issue for his district as well, and his decision to drop the program resulted in excitement from students about new offerings, he said.
“The biggest flaw I see in the program is that it takes a lot of the local choice out, and the small portion sizes were an issue for our high school students,” he said. “Not only the athletes, but we have a number of students who work after school and our lunch was the only food they would have until later in the evening.”
But Pratt-Heavner says some of the heartache surrounding portion sizes has been eased — The USDA responded to initial criticism by permanently removing the weekly maximums on grains and proteins, while keeping the broader calorie limits in place. And while there are certainly challenges, the health benefits are worth the initial struggle, said Alice Ammerman, director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the leader of a research team for the new Food Explorers Program.
“The data suggests that schools may lose money initially when implementing the standard(s), but with creative planning and marketing, they can increase parental support and thus child participation and reverse the losses,” she said.
Faggione said he believes that if schools manage the federal money effectively, the number of kids on free and reduced lunches should not matter.
“Just because you have 57% of your students that qualify for free and reduced meals doesn’t mean you’re a good steward of that reimbursement,” he said. “(But) if you can control and manage you’re money, you could be successful at 10 percent, 57 percent, 80 percent.”
The issue of reimbursement rates is not lost on the USDA, and the option of calculating these rates based on cost of living is being discussed. But perhaps the most immediate change schools will see in the 2014 school year are the updated standards on calorie and fat limits for the a la carte, vending machine and snack bar options, which will help ensure that all food sold in school is healthy. The update has prompted food companies to take a step in a healthier direction as well, according to Hannah Jones, nutrition policy coordinator for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“We’ve already seen a lot of companies start reformulating products, because schools are a big market for them, and they want to be able to sell their products in school meal programs or in school vending machines,” she said.
But many schools have relied on supplemental sales since the early 1980s to generate enough revenue to break even with the program, according to Lynn Harvey, section chief of Child Nutrition Services for the NC Department of Public Instruction. If the new healthy snack standards result in a decrease in sales, there’s reason for concern.
Nutrition-wise, however, the new standards should be extremely beneficial. A recent study conducted by Bridging the Gap and published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that students consumed fewer calories and gained less weight in schools that had passed their own nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks, which could indicate the promising potential of the changes to snacks and a la carte options being implemented in 2014.
Overall, the study showed that offering healthy school foods is an important strategy for reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. Specifically, it was found that nutrition standards had a greater impact on students from low-income families because they are relying on school lunches to get the nutrition they need. Faggione understands that this gives increased significance to his role as nutrition director in a district with 56% of students on free and reduced meals.
“We don’t do our job as a community to expose children to healthy fruits and vegetables, or just healthy food period,” he said. “When you overwhelm populations with inexpensive, high calorie, high carbohydrate food, and that’s what they grow up on, then if we’re in a school system and try and show them this is the healthy way to eat, that’s a challenge. But it’s something you don’t give up on.”
But addressing childhood obesity isn’t as simple as swapping an apple for a candy bar. The lunch program has to provide meals that are adequate and substantial enough for food insecure children who may not eat again until the next day, but can be given to overweight children who may not need as many calories, according to Harvey. As serious as childhood obesity is, the high rates of hunger are equally as alarming, as Faggione and his cafeteria staff witness on a daily basis.
“Our staff continuously share the frustration they feel when they see students coming to school on Monday, and they know they haven’t eaten all weekend,” he said. “And the kids are starving. And that bothers the staff and that bothers me.”
So while combatting childhood obesity remains one of the primary goals of the National School Lunch Program, the emphasis on the importance of nutrition and its multiple benefits should not be lost along the way.
(The goal) is addressing the childhood obesity epidemic, but also acknowledging that kids have poor nutrition,” Jones said. “Even kids who aren’t obese or overweight aren’t getting enough fruits or vegetables. And so it’s really important that these federal nutrition programs are providing actually nutritious food and supporting kids health.”