School meals have been a hot issue since the introduction of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. This bill was designed to improve the healthfulness of food served at schools throughout the country. Meeting the nutritional needs of all children and reducing rates of childhood obesity were the two main goals. Regulations in the bill were based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine as well as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Some important changes included: increasing fruits and vegetable offerings, switching to whole grains, and decreasing sugar, salt and saturated/trans-fats. All the changes were incremental in order to help school districts adjust. The 2014-2015 school year will bring the next phase of changes.
Here are some of the highlights:
• The “Smart Snacks” regulations put guidelines on competitive foods sold anywhere in schools during the school day. This is the first time that the USDA has put restrictions on foods sold at schools that are not part of the daily school meal. This includes vending machines and school stores as well as à la carte items sold in the lunch line such as sandwiches, salads and snacks.
• Tightened sodium restrictions. The first phase of sodium restriction will begin this year, which sets upper limits on the amount of sodium in breakfast and lunch.
• Whole-grain rich foods. 100% of grains and breads must be whole-grain rich, which means each of these products must contain at least 50% whole-grains. This regulation applies to bread, cookies, pancakes, cereal, etc.
With the new phase of guidelines set for implementation on July 1 for next school year, school lunch is once again getting a lot of attention. Members of Congress are fighting to roll back the guidelines which some think to be too strict and difficult to implement in schools. It also addresses a reduction in student participation and consequential lost profits that some districts have attributed to the new meals.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill in May that was spearheaded by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. It introduces a waiver to allow schools to delay the additional changes to school meals for one year if the school district can demonstrate that it has been losing money for at least six months since July 1, 2013. This waiver is intended to give schools additional time to make the new rules work best for their program. Food industry groups, including the School Nutrition Association, support the bill.
In response, the Senate Appropriations Committee issued its own bipartisan version of the bill. It doesn’t offer a waiver but instead has two provisions. First, it requires the USDA to identify acceptable substitute foods for schools if whole-grain rich products are unavailable. In addition, the Senate bill proposes delaying the target 2 sodium restrictions (2016-2017 school year) until further scientific evidence is obtained that supports the recommendation.
Many nutrition organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the American Heart Association are pushing to fight Congress and keep the rules intact. In a press release, Margo Wootan of CSPI makes the important point that school lunches should not be a political battle. The guidelines were based on scientific evidence and recommendations that would best serve children in America. Michelle Obama responded to the appropriations bills by hosting an event at the White House for school nutrition officials on May 27. She called the bills unacceptable and said, “The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kid’s health.”
Minneapolis Success Story
Even though there are challenges, 90% of schools are meeting the 2012 guidelines according to USDA analysis. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is a local success.
I spoke with Mr. Bertrand Weber, the director of Culinary and Nutrition Services for Minneapolis Public Schools. Mr. Weber started his position at MPS in January 2012, right before implementation of the Healthy, Hungry Free Kids Act was set to begin. His team approached the changes by putting emphasis on health instead of regulations. They focused on serving fresh, healthy, good looking foods that students would want to eat. Since implementing the changes, participation in school meals has increased by 14.5%. More kids are eating school meals. Some of the changes he made include:
• Scratch cooking: One of the biggest changes that the district made under his leadership was introducing scratch cooking. In the past, MPS had served primarily pre-packaged foods. Mr. Weber introduced kitchens in many schools and more will be introduced over the next several years. There is also a central kitchen that prepares fresh food for schools without cooking facilities. Mr. Weber said that moving from pre-packaged foods to scratch kitchens was intimidating for kitchen staff at first, but the staff and students quickly embraced the change.
• Salad bars: Salad bars in schools allow kids to try more fruits and veggies. Mr. Weber said that salad bars are a huge success and they feature both fresh and canned produce. These are a way to increase choices in schools without kitchens. To introduce more whole grains at school, a whole grain salad is featured daily at the salad bar. This includes wheat berry, wild rice, quinoa, whole grain couscous and red rice salad. Mr. Weber is proud that MPS is able to introduce the students to whole grains in their natural form, many of which are new to students. He said the curry couscous salad with raisins is a student favorite because of its rich flavor profile.
• True Food Chef Council: Community involvement in Minneapolis is one of the biggest successes. True Food Chef Council is a group of local chefs from restaurants such as Pizzeria Lola and Tilia that develop recipes for MPS school meals. Often, they put these items on their restaurant menu as well. This engages the whole community, which Mr. Weber claimed was crucial for success of the program.
Mr. Weber explained that he doesn’t agree with Congress delaying the guidelines, because it is in the best interest of children to serve healthier meals. His team has been able to adhere to the guidelines by using fresh ingredients with bold flavors and including chefs and students in menu planning. They use real ingredients whenever possible, so the regulations such as sodium restrictions do not hit them as hard. MPS students have embraced the new food because it is real, tasty and good looking.
School meals impact student’s health and are an issue we shouldn’t turn our backs on. Delaying these guidelines will not do our children any good as childhood obesity and diabetes continue to be high. While there are certainly challenges, it’s important to remember the goal of the bill, which is to improve the health of children. Success stories such as those of Minneapolis and other districts can be used to help other lunch programs be successful, profitable and healthy.
For more information about Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Nutrition Services, Mr. Bertrand Weber can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and addresses relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at email@example.com.