Since December 2010, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act became law, schools have been implementing the most sweeping set of changes for school meal programs since the 1980s - with more changes to come.
At the time, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak called it "an historic victory for our nation's youngsters."
"This legislation will allow (the U.S. Department of Agriculture), for the first time in over 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children," Vilsak said.
Since then, school nutrition programs nationwide have been implementing components of the regulations; because of the scope and complexity of these rules, more changes will be made over time.
What are the changes and what have they meant to the Eau Claire school district and other schools nationwide?
The regulations require schools to:
— Improve direct certification so students in families eligible for FoodShare are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals without having to complete an application for them. Families with directly certified students receive a letter before the new school year begins stating they do not need to apply.
— Charge students for full-price meals an amount that is on average equal to the difference between free meal reimbursement and paid meal reimbursement. Those currently charging less will have to gradually increase their prices until they meet the requirement, unless the schools can cover the difference with non-federal funds.
The increase does not have to be more than 10 cents annually; schools establish a higher increase at their discretion. As a result, our district has had to increase meal prices for the past two years and anticipates having to do so again the next school year.
— Provide students unrestricted access to water during lunchtime. While middle and high school cafeterias have water fountains in or near the cafeteria, drinking fountains in the elementary schools are not necessarily near the dining area.
We bought water jugs and disposable cups so elementary school students also have easy access to drinking water at lunchtime.
— Plan menus based on food components served (meat, grains, vegetables, fruits and milk), calories and saturated fat. Schools no longer have the option to plan menus based on individual target nutrients, such as fat, iron and fiber.
In addition, all foods served must be free of added trans fats.
— Establish meal patterns for age/grade groups.
— Offer fruits and vegetables daily. Previous requirements allowed for serving fruit or vegetables. In addition, subgroups of vegetables must be offered weekly. Subgroups are dark green and red/orange vegetables, beans and peas, starch vegetables and other vegetables.
As before, students may refuse up to two food items, but now they must select at least 1/2 cup of fruits, vegetables or a combination.
— Serve more whole grains. By July 2014, all grains offered must be whole grains.
— Serve only milk with 1 percent milk fat or less or milk that is fat-free.
All schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must comply with the new requirements.
Schools may submit documentation of compliance with the regulations to receive an additional 6-cents-per-lunch reimbursement to help offset the cost of increased fruits, vegetables and whole-grain items.
How is our district doing in implementing the new regulations?
Some changes have been easy. For many years the district has been offering:
— An increasing number of products that are whole-grain rich.
— An increasing number of fruits and vegetables.
— Only reduced-fat or fat-free milk.
— Menus with less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
— Fewer desserts.
In addition, some products, such as whole-grain breadsticks, are more readily available because more schools are requesting them.
Some of the challenges in making the changes include:
— Overall, the response from students and parents has been very positive, but some students don't want to select a fruit or vegetable as required.
While we all have food likes and dislikes, we try to accommodate student acceptance of items.
For instance, most students like mandarin oranges or baby carrots. If we offer broccoli, which isn't a student favorite but is a great source of nutrients, we also serve mandarin oranges. If we offer baby carrots, we may offer mixed fruit, which is not a student favorite.
We encourage students to choose both fruits and vegetables with their meals.
— Some students, such as student athletes, still may be hungry after eating because calorie requirements are too restrictive for them.
— The district does not know all the specifics of what the regulations will be for the next school year.
The USDA continues to tweak the rules. For example, while calorie requirements remain the same, as of November and for the rest of this school year, the USDA eliminated the weekly limits on the amount of grains and meats that can be offered.
This means we now can offer cheeseburgers on elementary and middle school menus. We had been using a hamburger patty that contributed 2 ounces of meat to the menu, but we could not add 1/2 ounce of cheese because of weekly limits in the amount of meat or meat alternates (such as cheese, eggs, peanut butter or soy) we could offer.
We also could not offer Parmesan cheese as a condiment with spaghetti.
The USDA has specified that the restrictions for the amount of grain and meat served are lifted for this school year only. We do not know specifics for the next school year.
— It has been a challenge to find products that meet the regulations, taste good and are acceptable to students.
For example, at the beginning of the school year we served a spring mix for salads that contained purple lettuce. The students did not like the purple lettuce so we switched to all romaine lettuce for salad.
Next year we anticipate more changes. For example, fruit, and not only juice, will be offered at breakfast.
In addition, the USDA will be issuing more information regarding wellness policies and competitive foods such as a la carte and vended items. We will continue to offer meals and food items that meet the regulations.
Our goal is the same as the title of the law: kids who are healthy and hunger-free.
Brown is director of the Eau Claire school district's food and nutrition program.