With regulations from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 going into effect this year, districts across the nation have readjusted their lunch menus to meet the new standards aimed at offering kids nutritious cafeteria-fare.
The standards include ensuring that students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week, increasing the offering of whole grain foods, only offering low fat or fat free dairy products and limiting calories based on the age group being served. There is also an increased focus on reducing the amounts of saturated, trans-fats and sodium in the meal.
This year, the standards only apply to lunches, but next year they will be extended to cover breakfast offerings.
Denise Agati, director of the Ithaca City School District’s Child Nutrition Program, said the new standards are in-line with the nutrition program’s goals to get healthier foods in front of students.
"A lot of the standards are pretty much the same as they’ve always been,” she said. “The big difference would be the colors of the vegetables now and the mandatory taking of a fruit or a vegetable. I mean we always had to offer five components, the fruit, the vegetable, the protein, the grain, and we’ve always been doing that."
She began preparing for the new standards by participating in the Healthy U.S. School Challenge, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which she said gave her the idea to follow many of the guidelines that became standards this year, allowing the program to follow them before they became mandatory.
Agati also has been working with the Cool Foods Team, a partnership between the Child Nutrition Program, the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, Moosewood Restaurant and Cayuga Pure Organics. The team develops and tests out new recipes that follow the standards. Past successes include a Tuscan Tomato Pie, Pasta Fazool and “power hummus.”
Agati said this year three new recipes will be developed and tested. One, North African red lentils with cous cous, is already being served to students, having gone through the student vetting process where Agati tests the recipe at ten of the schools to gauge the students’ taste buds. An Asian stir fry using tofu as a protein is under development and a third recipe using a bean product from Cayuga Pure Organics is to be cooked up next.
While Agati said she felt the district was prepared for the changes mandated this year, further adjustments, like cutting back on the serving of grains and proteins, still had to be made.
“This year at the beginning of the year we had a lot of problems because they cut the bread portions so much on top of the protein portions,” she said.
Agati estimated that there was about a two percent drop in enrollment for the lunch program when the changes to the program were made.
“It was a lot of changes at one time,” she said. “We did increase our lunch prices a little bit because we haven’t done in a few years.”
One of the problems at the beginning of the year was related to the change in the amount of grains permitted. Agati gave the example that only a 1.75 ounce bagel for elementary schools and a two ounce bagel for the high school was allowable.
“We went from four ounce bagels to one point seven five,” she said. “And for kids, it was too much change too fast.”
Agati said the standard was changed so that if the program keeps the meal within the allowable minimum/maximum calorie count, they will be OK.
Agati gave another example: Protein servings had to be two ounces for pre-K and Kindergarten, as well as for high school.
"I think they realized it, and that’s where they were getting a lot of complaints because the high schoolers, they were not full," Agati said.
Agati said she believed in the color coding portion of the standards, which requires lunch programs once a week to offer a red or an orange vegetable, a dark green vegetable, a bean or legume, a starch, and a vegetable from another veggie group such as cabbage.
A bowl of fruit is kept by checkout to try and catch students trying to sneak by without a fruit or vegetable.
Agati recently submitted an application for six cents certification. If certified, the USDA will pay the program six cents more per meal.
“Now with the new guidelines they have to have a fruit or vegetable so we’re paying a lot more out, but this is their way, if you’re following the guidelines, we’re going to pay you back,” she said.
While there is the higher cost for fresh vegetables, Agati said the program has saved on processing costs, since they no longer send food out to be processed.
Agati said she was most concerned about the financial impact the regulations — watching sodium and sugar content, and portion size — for snacks would have on the program. She already pulled ice cream out of the a la carte options offered to make the nutrition program’s snack offerings healthier separate of proposed regulations.
"I know when we pulled the ice cream out of the elementary schools we lost about $10 or 15 thousand dollars per year," she said. "So I know it’s going to hurt us."
To compensate and prepare, she has been trying to do catering offsite with the nutrition program.
At the district’s Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Feb. 26, board members commended Agati for her work on the lunch program, which they pointed out is in the positive financially.
“We do see reports of many districts’ food service programs are really bleeding money right now because of the new federal regulations that have a change in what they are demanding from food service, changing to more locally grown food that frankly Denise has already done,” said Rob Ainslie, president of the board.
Overall, Agati said she felt positive about the district's Child Nutrition Program; that it was doing well, reaching out to meet everyone's concerns and meeting the federal standards by continuing to develop and adjust recipes.
"These new recipes, it’s not like all students are eating them," she said. "You still have to tweak them a little bit. You can’t just push it all out at one time. Even if we start with 10 percent of the elementary students eating it, I think it’s a start."