Schools digesting new lunch rules

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January 31, 2012 - 6:00pm

The federal government is making the first significant changes to school lunch rules in 15 years. While some schools have been working on healthier lunches ahead of time, others will have some catching up to do. Grant Gerlock of NET News talks to Bev Benes, director of Nutrition Services with the Nebraska Department of Education, about what the changes will mean in Nebraska.

Grant Gerlock, NET News

Bev Benes, director of Nutrition Services at the Nebraska Department of Education

What's New with School Lunch?
  • See new rules compared to old guidelines.

  • New calorie ranges based on grade level.

  • New limits on sodium in 2014, halved by 2023.

  • Lunches must be free of trans fat.

  • Fruit and veggie serving sizes increased.

  • Only whole grains by July 2014

  • Only fat-free or low fat milk

Grant Gerlock, NET News

25,000 student are served lunch each day at Lincoln Public Schools like Park Middle School.

Grant Gerlock, NET News

New standards will require students to choose a fruit or vegetable with their meal.

GRANT GERLOCK, NET NEWS: This was the first overhaul of the guidelines in 15 years. As long as you've been paying attention to the issue, how significant are the changes that the USDA has made and how has the focus on the issue of school lunches changed over time?

BEV BENES, NEBRASKA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: Well, I think we have always encouraged healthy choices in school meals, but the big changes are that we are encouraging more whole grains. We're also encouraging more fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as ... a greater variety.

We've always, since I've been here, even before this new meal pattern, encouraged reduction of sodium. Most of our schools do not have salt and pepper shakers, certainly not salt shakers, on the table. Not even at the end of the line. So we've been moving toward that for a long time, but now we have it in regulation so that makes it even more official.

GERLOCK: When you look at the basic guidelines that came out from the USDA, what caught your attention first?

BENES: I think what caught our attention was the increase in the number of fruit and vegetable servings. For example, now there is a one cup requirement for a fruit serving, which is a much more substantial serving than what was required before.

GERLOCK: It's basically doubled, right?

BENES: Right. But again, it's giving the children more exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables. It's also assuring that the children now take a fruit or vegetable at their lunch meal. Some schools have an offer versus serve option, in which the students can take three of the five required components. Previously, there was no requirement of any one of the components. But with the new meal pattern, they will be required to take either a fruit or a vegetable serving as part of that offer versus serve.

GERLOCK: Are any of these going to be big changes in Nebraska, or are these small steps?

BENES: There will be some changes. Certainly, there are schools that are serving some more of the processed foods. And there are some very legitimate reasons for that. Many of the schools have limited labor available. They also have had their funding cut over the last few years, and schools are trying to find a variety of ways to control their budgets. One of the ways they can do that is by serving pre-prepared, heat-and-serve foods. This is probably going to require more from-scratch preparation.

So in the department, we're currently thinking about developing training not only on the new meal pattern, but also on ways to prepare the food from scratch. And I think once the students start getting to taste some of these from-scratch recipes, they'll really like the food.

We do have a lot of schools in Nebraska that do prepare from scratch. We even have some that are still making their own homemade bread. I think they'll find the food is tastier without so much added sodium, tastier without so much added fat, and a very good product.

GERLOCK: What kinds of schools do you think might have a harder time, might struggle to make what might be bigger changes for them?

BENES: I think some of the schools where their equipment was purchased for convenience preparation, a heat-and-serve, because if we do go to more from-scratch preparation, they're going to need some additional equipment.

GERLOCK: They were built for a different kind of idea of what school lunch is and they need to catch up?

BENES: Certainly, they need to catch up, or they haven't had a lot of money to purchase equipment, either. An incentive to meet the new meal pattern this fall is that if every school in that school district is serving menus that meet the new meal pattern, that school will be eligible for an additional 6 cents per meal in their reimbursement, and that's a significant amount of money.

GERLOCK: But that's hinged on making the changes and having that recognized and certified.

BENES: Yes, it is, and actually we have until October. So this won't happen immediately when school starts in for most schools in Nebraska in August. We have until October to go out and make sure their menus are meeting the meal standard and certify them. Then in October that new increase, 6 cents per meal, will be assigned to those school districts who are eligible.

Interestingly, every school site in the district must meet the meal pattern. So if you have a school district with 10 schools and only one didn't meet it, unfortunately the whole district will not be eligible for the 6-cent reimbursement.

GERLOCK: Part of the reason for making the changes is the high rate of child obesity. Do you think that schools deserve part of the blame for the high numbers of overweight and obese kids that we see today?

BENES: I suppose you'd say that I'm a little prejudiced, but I'd say no. It's certainly not one meal for some kids that is going to make them obese. It's the whole community. It's the at-home environment. It's the out-of-school environment when they're with their friends. It's access to a lot of fast food.

Also, we see that children aren't as active as they used to be. There's a lot more screen time instead of outdoor time. So school is part of that environment, and we're going to do what we can to make those changes, and hopefully then the community as a whole will continue to make changes so that it's healthy foods that are available. It's opportunities to be safe and active when you're outside.

GERLOCK: Bev Benes, thanks very much.

BENES: You're welcome. Glad you came and talked to me, and I'm real excited about our new meal pattern.



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