USDA, area educators celebrate start of ‘healthier’ school year
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org August 29, 2012 8:22PM
Updated: October 1, 2012 5:11PM
Already this school year, the impact of the new school lunch standards approved earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is showing.
And that’s not just on students’ plates, said U.S. Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon during a conference call Wednesday. It also is showing in the “enthusiasm of the nutrition world,” Concannon said.
“This is an exciting time for us because improvements we’ve worked hard to make have now come to fruition,” he said.
Those improvements are the first time those standards have been modified in more than 15 years and will be phased in over three years, starting this school year, according to the USDA.
All are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity. That was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
The changes include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; fewer salty and fatty foods; low-fat and fat-free milk; and reduced saturated and trans-fats, according to Concannon. They also include “right-sized portions,” he said.
“For the first time in the history of the (National School Lunch) program, we have both minimum and maximum calories, age- and grade-adjusted so that it better reflects the dietary needs and the activities of children in the various age groups,” he said.
Concannon called the changes “much-needed and long-overdue.” And he admitted they may be a huge change for some schools.
But both Elgin School District U46 and Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300 said that when the changes were announced last school year, they already had been proactive in making the meals served in their schools healthier.
“We’ve been doing it gradually, and I think that’s the key — to not do something so abruptly, and then your consumers won’t notice a change,” said Claudie Phillips, U46 director of food and nutrition.
That has meant enforcing students take one fruit or vegetable with each meal, rather than any three of five options for sides, and some adjustment to the portions for middle school students, Phillips said. But U46 already had been serving all whole-wheat breads and skim chocolate milk and introducing more legumes last year, she said.
The changes that District 300 has made to its elementary school lunches helped all 16 of those schools meet the HealthierUS School Challenge in 2010-11, also part of Let’s Move! And that sent district officials last summer to the White House for recognition.
Concannon said studies and anecdotal evidence show students who get “regular routinized access to healthy foods” do better, and those “who have been in food-insecure households often don’t come right off the bus running, in terms of the school year.”
Those healthy foods and the new portion sizes are based on the 2010 dietary guidelines for all Americans and recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, according to the under secretary. They may not be sufficient for “extremely active” children, such as student athletes, who can bring additional food from home or take advantage of school breakfast or after-school snack programs, he said.
‘A different mindset’
Phillips said she only has gotten one complaint about the portions so far this school year, which started a week ago Wednesday. It was about a salad topped with chicken, and it came not from a student but from a parent.
“Most people don’t look at a salad as a meal. They look at a salad as a side,” she said. “It’s just a different mindset.”
District U46 also launched the Breakfast in the Classroom program in 10 schools this year, which provides free breakfasts to all students at their desks.
Phillips said she also has received one complaint from a parent about that program, and U46 Board of Education member Jennifer Shroder also noted concern about the healthiness of the foods provided at the last board meeting. Those foods meet USDA guidelines, Phillips said, and parents may not be able to tell from looking at them that they contain whole grains and are reduced fat.
Overall, she said, the response to the breakfast program and new standards has been “phenomenal.” Just Wednesday, she heard from one U46 elementary school that had served students cherry tomatoes and cucumbers with lunch. And she’s looking forward to introducing students to jicama (a large, bulbous root vegetable with a mild flavor) this school year.
Reviews have been more mixed in District 300, where the fruit and vegetable requirement has been a tough sell to middle and high school students, according to Scott Rodgers, general manager of ARAMARK, the district’s food services provider. The school district has not seen a significant drop in lunch sales since its school year started more than two weeks ago, he said, but more students are purchasing items a la carte, instead of a reimbursable meal.
“It’s the right move for the government to make in terms of the war on childhood obesity,” Rodgers said. “At the same time, I think it’s better for the kids to have something than nothing. Unfortunately, in some cases, they’re choosing nothing because it’s not what they’ve come to expect.”
District 300 plans to survey school lunch participants online in the next few weeks; and U46 will do so when students are settled in school in October, officials said.
“The school environment can be a most influential one in the life of a child, obviously,” Concannon said. “Kids spend a lot of time in school. It’s the perfect place to learn good habits. The improvements we’ve made were with an eye to creating healthy habits that will change the lives of these young people.”
“At the USDA, we’re committed to doing our part to make sure this generation of kids is healthier than the last. To do this, we need schools, parents, government leadership and everybody else to do their part as well by continuing to support us in making the school day healthier.”
More details on the USDA’s “healthier school day” are at fns.usda.gov/cnd/healthierschoolday/default.htm.