Reworking the school lunch menu to ensure it complies with far-reaching federal health mandates is no easy task.
But in New Albany-Plain Local schools, district food services staffers have put their all into making lunches compliant. And while other school districts face unrest and even boycotts from students upset at the new limitations on pizzas and desserts, New Albany has managed to keep its offerings appealing as well as healthful.
The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set, among other things, new nutrition standards for school meals. Those standards have been phased in since the act took effect, affecting a la carte offerings during the 2011-12 school year and focusing on lunch entrees this school year.
Previously, standards determined only the minimum offerings available to students. The new standards, though, put maximums on offerings. For instance, protein is capped at 2 ounces per meal for high school students and 1 ounce for elementary and middle schools, encouraging students to eat balanced meals containing sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables.
That necessitated changes to some of the options available to New Albany students, such as the burrito bar.
“One of our biggest serving days is burrito bar (day),” says Pam Charles, director of food services for the district.
To keep servings from exceeding the cap on grains, tortilla sizes were reduced and students now choose between a tortilla and rice instead of being able to have both. In order to avoid exceeding the cap on protein with meat and cheese, the district portioned out the meat in each burrito and keeps the cheese on the side as an option.
Responding to pressure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily removed the caps in December, but the standards in the New Albany-Plain Local kitchens have only been relaxed slightly because of the knowledge that maximums could be reinstated at any time, Charles says.
The pasta bar is incorporating more vegetables and pesto, and one day a week it offers a Piada-style option similar to that offered by the burrito bar. As with the burrito bar, staffers have the portioning down to a science, knowing exactly how much protein and grain they should add to an individual student’s meal, Charles says.
To make sure its panini line met standards, the district cut panini sizes in half and serves them on whole grain bread. The pizza line, once a consistent offering every day, is now converted to a chicken nuggets line one day a week and a sub sandwich line one day a week.
Desserts are rare.
Federal standards put no maximum on the amount of fruits and vegetables a student can have, so neither does the school district. To make up for the calories students cannot obtain from protein and grain, the district offers unlimited fruits and vegetables.
Participation in a government commodity program focused on fruits and vegetables has allowed the schools to offer a lot of items they might not otherwise have access to, such as tangerines. The program also provides portion-sized bags of items such as broccoli, cauliflower and apple slices. Drinks that are 100 percent juice, such as Capri Sun pouches and fruit slushes, are also an option.
Elementary school students have fixed menus and, thus, fewer options in general, but they do have access to a fruit and vegetable bar with five options per day.
While some nutritional changes have been made in response to federal mandates, others were established years ago to make sure kids’ options are healthful. Skim and 1 percent milk and whole grain breads have long been incorporated into New Albany’s lunches, and French fries are baked rather than fried.
“We’ve never had deep fryers here,” Charles says.
Fattening snacks such as potato chips have been pulled and replaced with more wholesome options such as granola bars. New Albany schools have never carried soft drinks, and sports drinks are available only to high school students. Vending machines carry mostly water, and water is the only beverage that can be dispensed from them during the school day; there are no snack vending machines. Condiments are now available on request rather than at an unattended station.
Though changes to their established options rubbed some students the wrong way, the student body as a whole has been understanding about the limitations the food services program faces, Charles says. It helps that New Albany students are fairly health-conscious, she says, and the district works hard to engage them.
The key is making sure offerings appeal to students, even if they’re not what they used to be, Charles says.
“I think we give them just about everything they could possibly want,” she says.
Collaborations with outside groups have allowed the district to expand its horizons and look for new ways to make meals tasty without making them unhealthful. These collaborations include Chefs Move to Schools, a national program that connects school districts to local chefs who suggest new ideas; visits to other school district’s cafeterias; and work with dieticians, including one from Ultimate U and an intern from Columbus State Community College.
Charles expects the 2013-14 school year standards to focus on breakfast. New Albany offers breakfast as an option for all grade levels.
Garth Bishop is a contributing editor. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.