Revised USDA regulations result in healthier school lunches

By SHERRI KOLADE
Times-Herald Newspapers

With one semester over, Dearborn Public Schools students have, for the most part, smoothly transitioned into eating healthier lunches because of new federal requirements, DPS Food Services Coordinator Jeff Murphy said.

“We offer a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables,” Murphy said. “Our salads are no longer iceberg lettuce, but Romaine and spinach. (The students) are still a little bit leery (of) the sweet potatoes.”

In the fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture called for schools to serve more fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, among other requirements.

First lady Michelle Obama backed the healthier lunch campaign with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in January, when they unveiled new nationwide school lunch standards.

Schools model their menus after USDA’s My Plate recommendations, which replaced the Food Pyramid as the government’s main food group symbol.

My Plate recommendations emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk, lean meats, low sodium intake and added sugars.

Murphy said DPS enforced the standards in September.

“There are things changing back and forth throughout the year and we do our best to stay up to date,” Murphy said. “For the most part, kids will adapt to anything once they have tried (it).”

Federal nutrition standards include swapping canned fruits and vegetables for fresh fruits and vegetables. A limit on protein also is in place – a move that might be unpopular, Murphy said.

“When something is new, they are reluctant at first,” Murphy said, “but (the food) keeps showing up on the menu and they try them and find they are good stuff.”

The “good stuff” includes lunches that must meet strict limits on saturated fat and portion size, with fat-free or low-fat milk choices. The USDA also doesn’t want schools to shy away from proteins and grains.

According to www.choosemyplate.gov, children ages 4 to 8 need four ounces of protein daily. That number jumps to five ounces for girls 9 to 18 years old. Boys in the same age range require five to 6.5 ounces of protein daily. One ounce of cooked lean beef is equivalent in size to a small matchbook cover.

The USDA created the new rule based on expert recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, according to a USDA press release.

The standards, expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years, also were updated with changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Starting this fall, school lunches throughout the county will need to meet additional standards, which include age-appropriate calorie limits for elementary, middle and high school meals.

According to www.choosemyplate.gov, children 9 to 13 should eat between 1,600 and 1,800 calories per day. That number is 1,800 to 2,200 for young people ages 14 to 18.

Students at all grade levels also must take at least one serving (a half cup) of fruits or vegetables with their school lunch. The vegetable options must be a wider variety of colors, including dark green, red and orange.

Dearborn Public Schools is a part of the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.

The program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children during the school day.

Murphy said 70 percent of DPS students participate in the national lunch program; 30 percent of students pay regular school lunch prices. About 19,100 students attend DPS.

Murphy said the lunch menu hasn’t changed much but the district is meeting USDA standards.

“In the past, as far as fruits and vegetables, a lot of it was from a can,” Murphy said. “It’s been a bit of an upgrade. We serve the chicken patties with grilled cheese sandwiches and we went to whole wheat six or seven years ago.”

Murphy said the district has been ahead of the curve for some time.

“We knew there were a lot of changes coming and didn’t want to shock the kids,” Murphy said. “We’ve been ahead of the game as far as what we were offering kids.”

Reduced sodium levels in school meals will be a gradual change, with the end goal of about 740 milligrams of sodium per meal.

According to the USDA/Agricultural Research Services Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine, the daily recommended value of sodium is 2,400 milligrams. For children 4 to 8 years old that number is 1,200 to 1,900 milligrams. For children 9 to 13 that number jumps to 1,500 to 2,200 milligrams. Young people ages 14 to 18 have a daily recommended value of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams.

Murphy said the district uses the same vendors as before the new regulations.

“The quality is the same,” Murphy said. “I think our district kids are accustomed to fresh fruits and vegetables. The menu hasn’t changed a lot but meeting the standards has. I have not heard much feedback from parents, which is good.”

Murphy said by the fall, food service officials will add protein to school breakfast.

Murphy said the district’s halal menu has not changed with the USDA requirements.

Murphy said 20 of the district’s 30 schools have halal menu options, meat that is ritually fit, according to Islamic law.

Westwood Community School District Senior Operations Officer David Stull said the food services vendor converted the district’s menus to its current standards in September.

“All of our menus are in line with (USDA regulations),” Stull said.

Westwood has partnered with Chartwell’s School Dining Services since September 2011.

The dining company provides a variety of food services to the district and other school districts.

Stull said Chartwell’s dietary staff reviewed the district’s menu options to make sure they comply with USDA regulations.

“As they find things and things come up they have to go back and take a look at it,” Stull said. “They are making changes all the time.”

Stull said every Westwood student eats lunch for free, and students quickly transitioned to eating healthier meals.

“Some districts experience problems with kids protesting against meals,” Stull said. “We haven’t had that issue really here, because all of our students eat lunch for free. That could make a difference because then you are getting something for nothing and you are not being as critical of it.”

Stull said Chartwell’s officials periodically meet with students to get their input on the menus. Stull said the district’s 1,850 students participate in free lunch programs and they can buy al a carte items.

“If they want, they can buy more than what is provided,” Stull said. “Kids like the (food).”

Some new changes include a reduced lunch portion sizes and set protein limits, among other USDA regulations.

Stull said students benefits the most from the federal nutrition standards.

“Those standards are trying to establish healthy eating patterns for students to get well-balanced meals,” Stull said. “That exposes them to a wider variety of fruits and vegetables in the course of a week.”

District-7 and Crestwood officials did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

(Sherri Kolade can be reached at skolade@bewickpublications.com.)

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