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School lunch menus changing
New USDA rules mandate more fruit, veggies and less protein, grains
Students across the nation will see a change in what is being served in their local school cafeterias this year due to new mandates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Yuma Union High School District student nutrition services director Charlene Story said that the changes have caused them to have to revamp the way they do meal planning for their campuses. Story said that under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools are now being required to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables, while putting a maximum limit on the amount of protein and grains that can be served per week.
She explained that while she is in favor of increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables, the USDA is now saying that students have to take at least half a cup for it to be considered a reimbursable meal.
“We have to serve more fruits and vegetables. That's no big deal because it's good for the students, but that they have to take it – that's a new one,” said Story.
She's hoping that through new marketing strategies, she'll be able to institute more grab-and-go type containers for students to be able to quickly choose fruits and vegetables.
“That will help to keep our lines moving... We have some schools that have 2,800 kids and we serve them in two lunch periods, so that's 1,400 students per lunch and they've got 30 minutes to eat. Our target is to have everyone fed within the first 10 minutes of their lunch so they have time to sit down and eat,” she said. “I can't put out a salad bar and have students stand there and pick and choose, it's just going to slow those lines down.”
She said that she is contracting through the Department of Defense to bring in new and fresher fruits and vegetables that they normally wouldn't be able to offer very often such as strawberries, blackberries and fresh spinach for sub sandwiches and pizza.
Although they were expecting the changes to the serving size of fruits and vegetables, the specifics of the requirements caught them off guard.
For example, not only have they specified how much vegetables students will be required to take, schools now have weekly requirements for the type of vegetables they need to serve in various categories per week. Categories include dark green, red/orange, and starchy vegetables as well as beans/peas and vegetables that fall into the other category such as artichokes, asparagus, avocado, cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, beets and cucumbers.
“It's a big learning curve,” she said.
One of the biggest problems she and her staff are running into with the new mandates is the maximum limit of meats and meat alternates they can serve. She explained that meat alternates are factored into serving limits of 2 ounces per meal in the protein category and include such items as cheese, peanut butter and beans.
Story said that where last year she was serving 3 ounces of meat and 1 ounce of cheese on their sub sandwiches, now that same sandwich would have to have 1 ½ ounces of meat and ½ ounce of cheese under the new requirements.
“It used to be you could only serve 4 ounces of protein per meal, and then it turned into 3 ounces of protein and now we're down to 2 ounces,” she explained. “2 ounces is not a lot of protein, especially for a growing high school student.”
Story added that for K-8 grades, the protein limit has been set to 1 ounce of protein per meal.
“I can no longer serve things like baked chicken because the servings sizes are too big,” she said. “I'm hoping that the families understand that a lot of this is no longer in our hands.
Story said that they are working to hire a chef that will help them make these new mandates as adaptable for their students as possible while implementing new recipes that will not only taste good but meet the standards for the USDA.
“There are ways to do it, we just have to figure out what those ways are very, very quickly,” she said.
She noted if schools meet the requirements and go through the certification process in October, they have the opportunity to receive 6 cents more per meal.
“It's not much, but every little bit helps,” she said. “When you look at a meal of $2.25, we get about a quarter from the government for serving it... By the time we cover our labor and all of our equipment costs and our overhead costs as any other restaurant would, it doesn't leave a whole lot left for food.”
Story said she hopes to make sure they can meet the requirements, while remaining financially successful and taking care of the most important thing: — the students.
While there are also new regulations for breakfast, they are not yet required to follow the standards.
“I thought about trying to do both but I don't want to hit the students with too much all at once,” she said. “It'll be really exciting once we get into it and try different things but it's a huge change. It's the biggest change that's been made in my 10 years.”
Sarah Womer can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6858. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSSarahWomer or on Twitter at @YSSarahWomer.