The new nutrition requirements were formulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Some school systems have decided to take their funding loses. The children were throwing out the nutritious foods they didn’t like rather than eating them.
In Bradley County Schools and Cleveland City Schools results of the changes seem to be more positive.
Cleveland City Schools supervisor of school nutrition Susan Mobley said she did not hear a lot of negative complaints once everything leveled out last year.
“We implemented the regulations in the city system just as they were written. I thought that had been communicated to the public. I guess I underestimated how much the public did know about the changes,” Mobley said.
“This year, they are used to the idea the regulations have changed. Now that we are all more comfortable with the planning process, it is a little smoother than it was last year.”
Complaints have not been made this year. At least, they have not reached her level yet.
Bradley County Schools supervisor of nutrition services Emily Brown said she eats with the students at every county school to see what they are choosing.
“And I eat with the teachers and I say, ‘What are you seeing in the trends as far as what they throw away?’” Brown said.
Changes to the menu may be made based on responses.
“What has been consistent is ‘We love fruits and vegetables,’” Brown said.
Sometimes proper training in food preparation for cafeteria staff can be the difference between a new food being accepted or not, she said.
Brown said black beans and rice had been served as a main dish once and the dish was not well accepted. Now, black beans and rice is a staple side dish.
“This year what’s different for me is I actually have a child in the Bradley County system,” Brown said.
Brown said she goes over the next day’s menu with her child to help him make nutritious choices.
This year Cleveland City Schools is focused on having kid-friendly meals. These include items like chicken nuggets, pizza, nachos, fish sticks and hamburgers. All of the meals are made with whole grains.
Last year’s menu found the nutrition staff doing their best to find appealing foods within the new guidelines. Students did not respond well to all of the menu choices. Changes have been made to ensure nutritious and delicious meals.
“It is only nutritious if they eat it. So if they are throwing it away, it doesn’t matter how many fruits and vegetables we put out there,” Mobley said.
The school system has added a vegetable bar. Workers monitor how much children grab from the spread.
“The workers are trained to try and get them to taste it even if it is not a whole serving,” Mobley said.
Brown said the goal of her department is to offer tasty, nutritious food, so every child eats lunch, rather than just going without because they don’t like something.
“I think that is one of our strong points. We get excited about food. We have a passion for food,” Brown said. “We want to see them (students) get excited about food.”
Mobley and Brown said preschool students have been a challenging age group to develop healthy foods they enjoy.
“Just having them try it ... is a challenge,” Brown said.
To overcome this challenge, Brown has had classroom activities with preschool and kindergarten students to introduce them to new fruits and vegetables. In middle school, students are more likely to choose a “grab and go” option.
Mobley said a major difference is manufacturers have had an opportunity to adjust to the nutrition changes.
In Cleveland schools, students have three menu options: A traditional hot meal like spaghetti or chicken casserole; lunch around the world (Asian, Italian, Mexican, fish and chips and American) — a set meal for each day of the week; and a cold choice like tuna salad over leafy greens or a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
County elementary students have a choice of a hot lunch or a “Grab and Go Choice.” Middle and high school students have the same options with the addition of a salad bar. County high school students also have international meal options.
“At Bradley High School, the salad bar has just gone through the roof. It has really excelled,” Brown said.
Students’ lunch purchases are down in the month of August for Bradley County Schools. However, Brown said this is normal because students are excited about using new lunch boxes. She said the number increases as the school year goes on.
This August had fewer Bradley County students buying lunch than last August.
Mobley said due to the high amount of students getting free and reduced lunches, the school system has not seen a noticeable dip in student lunch purchases.
“Participation for us has increased in August (compared to last August). I have watched it very closely,” Mobley said. “Overall, we have had an increase. Some schools are considerably higher than that. Strangely, participation in both high school and middle school are off from last year.”
Some have had trouble shifting to the new menus and smaller portions.
“I think they should have a survey on what nutritional foods the students eat more of and put out more. ... I understand trying new foods, but if too much is being wasted it is also losing money that can go toward food they will eat that is good. That goes for the snacks in the elementary schools, too. I see students throwing away so much food,” said Ruth Ben-Judah, a parent of three Cleveland City School students.
Others have had a more positive experience.
Walker Valley High School junior Tanner Caldwell said he liked having healthier options.
“I love fruit, and they have apples, bananas and grapes,” Caldwell said.
He said these options and a large salad bar with “nutritious and healthy toppings” are always available. His favorite food in the cafeteria is tacos.
This year has brought additional changes as calorie limits on breakfast were introduced.