New federal nutrition standards for school meals are requiring school cafeterias in the Cleveland City Schools system to adapt their lunch program for the 2012-13 school year.
“The changes are really positive,” said Susan Perrin, supervisor of child nutrition services. “It’s the way we should all be eating. The place to start to train America to eat differently is with the kids.”
New nutrition requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an act pushed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! campaign. The act was signed into law by President Obama.
School lunches must meet the following additional standards: age-appropriate calorie limits; larger servings of vegetables and fruits (students must take at least one serving of produce); a wider variety of vegetables, including dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes; fat-free or 1 percent milk (flavored milk must be fat-free); more whole grains; and less sodium.
Changes in the nutrition policy are obvious when old requirements for K-12 are compared to new requirements. There were no specifications as to type of vegetable subgroup under the old requirements. Policy changes demand a weekly requirement for dark green, red/orange, beans/peas (legumes), starchy, and other varieties.
Calorie changes have also affected the meat and meat alternate daily minimums. The old requirements gave 1.5 to 2 ounces as a daily minimum. All grades may receive 1 ounce of meat or meat alternate daily, but weekly amounts are dependent on grade level. Grades kindergarten through fifth have an 8- to 10-oz. weekly requirement whereas grades six through eight have a 9 to 10 oz. weekly requirement. Grades nine through 12 have the highest at 10-12 oz weekly.
Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of city schools, said parents and students have been commenting on the recent menu changes.
“There are reasons for the changes, and they are at the national level, not the local level,” Ringstaff said. “If we do not meet the new requirements then we are in danger of stepping out of compliance.”
Stepping out of compliance could mean a fine for the city school system. Schools are encouraged to follow protocol by a 6-cent incentive. Schools will receive 6 cents for every meal they offer following the new guidelines.
“Nutrition regulations have changed completely. The requirements are completely different from even 10 years ago,” Perrin said.
The new federal nutrition logo has a plate separated in four parts with protein, vegetables, grains, and fruits all designated a specific color. The school nutrition department has tried to make this logo comprehensive for children. Visible changes have been made at the schools to educate children on nutrition.
“We have a big poster that says, ‘Fill your tray with smiles for a healthy school meal.’ Then we take little round smiles and put [them] on the sneeze guards in front of each item to show them what that component is,” Perrin said. “For a sandwich, you would have a purple and a brown smiley face. That shows them that sandwich is actually two components. They are getting a meat/meat alternate and a grain.”
A lot of thought has gone into relating healthy nutrition to students of all ages, according to Brenda O’Neal, cafeteria manager at Donald P. Yates Primary.
“Because our children are so young, they identify colors better than they do seeing words or even an item,” O’Neal said. “... If we start training them now, then by the time they get to high school they should have a good knowledge of nutrition, and the food available to them.”
Students at Yates Primary are given a choice between a red meal and a blue meal. The red meals are hot items like a lunch of baked ham, angel biscuit with jelly, sweet potato mash, seasoned green beans and chilled pear halves. The blue meals are in a clear bag and have a set meal for each day of the week. Blue meals share the same nutritional components as the hot lunches and provide students with an additional lunch choice. For example, every Thursday in the first six-week rotation, Thursday blue meals will be yogurt with fresh vegetables and whole grain graham crackers. Both meals include drinks.
A large emphasis is being placed on fresh fruits and vegetables. New regulations call for a balance between fresh and canned produce. O’Neal said the two types of produce allow children to see the difference. Students may receive a cup of pears on Tuesday and then slices of a fresh pear on Thursday. Fresh produce, like pears, allow children to see how fruit and vegetables grow from the tree or plant where they originate.
“It’s interesting to see when you have a kindergartner coming through the line how it’s a whole new world. They do not know any differently. From this point on, they are not going to remember a time where there wasn’t a lot of fresh fruits or vegetables. They are not going to remember a time when there was white bread at school,” Perrin said.
Perrin said cafeteria employees have been very receptive to the changes.
“There is so much change and they are concerned they will not do something right, but I have not gotten resistance from them,” Perrin said. “They are excited about the positive differences.”
Further changes to the National School Lunch Program Meal Pattern will include new requirements for breakfast programs for the 2013-14 school year. All grains must be whole grain rich beginning July 1, 2014.