School cafeterias prepare for tough test

Nutrition goals are up; will kids respond?

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 
photo The new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for school lunches require students to take at least one serving (1/2 cup) of fruits or vegetables. Local schools have always offered fruits and vegetables, but students weren't required to take them.

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For more information on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch changes and My Plate campaign, visit http://myplate.gov.

The lunch menus at Clark County schools may not appear much different this year, but the food on the trays will be a little more colorful and healthful.

This fall, schools across the country are implementing new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for school lunches, the result of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama. The act also requires changes to school breakfast menus, but those will be phased in over the next three years.

The new lunch guidelines set calorie, fats and sodium limits for school meals and set caps for the amount of grains and meat or meat alternatives on the menu. They also require schools to offer more variety of fruits and vegetables every day (specifically red/orange veggies, legumes and dark greens) and require students to have at least one serving (1/2 cup) of fruits or vegetables on their tray. Schools must offer more whole-grain foods, and milk must be low-fat or nonfat.

The federal government will reimburse schools an additional 6 cents per meal meeting the new requirements. That's the first reimbursement increase above inflation in more than 30 years, according to the USDA.

Many Clark County schools were already making changes to their menus before the guidelines were released in January.

Vancouver Public Schools started the work a couple of years ago, said spokeswoman Kris Sork. The district's schools serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day, use whole-wheat buns and rolls, and offer only fat-free and low-fat milk, she said.

"A lot of the stuff we serve is made from scratch, so it's lower in fat and trans fat," Sork said.

The Vancouver and La Center school districts operate their own food service programs. The rest of the county's school districts contract with one of two food service operators, Chartwells or Sodexo.

The nutrition services directors for local districts contracting with Sodexo -- Battle Ground, Camas, Hockinson, Washougal and Woodland -- spent the summer collaborating. They combed through lunch recipes and altered offerings to meet the requirements. They also approached vendors about reducing the size of some of their products, said Sarah Winans, Camas nutrition services director and a registered dietitian.

Required food

"The biggest change students and families will see is, half a cup of fruit or vegetable is required to be on the tray," Winans said.

The Camas and Battle Ground schools have for years offered salad bars with a variety of fruits and vegetables. In the past, students weren't required to take any of the food. Now, the cashiers will check the trays for 1/2 cup of fruits or veggies, she said.

Several years ago, the Camas district switched to whole-grain-rich foods (those with at least 51 percent whole grain), such as brown rice and whole-grain pasta. The Battle Ground district has made similar changes.

Some of the portion sizes at the schools may be smaller now, since the USDA set limits on how much grain can be served each week. For example, the roll for sub sandwiches served to secondary students will be reduced from 3 ounces to 2 ounces, Winans said.

To help students understand the changes, the schools will hang posters explaining the requirements, defining serving sizes and identifying items in the lunch line as grain, meat, dairy, fruit or vegetable, said Russ Kallwick, Battle Ground nutrition services director.

By putting such an emphasis on fruits and vegetables and limiting grains and meat, the USDA is trying to promote a more balanced meal, Kallwick said.

"If you eat that way, you're going to be healthier. There's no denying it," he said. "It's just not the way our culture has been eating."

Kallwick and Winans hope students will embrace the changes, rather than throw the required food in the trash. The staff plans to monitor the food scraps bin to get a better idea of how much food goes to waste, Kallwick said.

"We're on board with it," he said. "We just hope the students are."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.