Published November 11, 2011
Although new government regulations for nutrition standards in school lunches won’t go into effect until the 2012-2013 school year, many public schools are already making healthy adjustments to their meal plans.
The Food and Drug Administration’s regulations, which are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, mark the first time in 15 years school lunches have been revamped. The changes, which every public school must abide by, include switching to things like low-sodium ketchup and whole wheat pizza crust. With nearly one-third of American children now considered obese, many say the regulations are long overdue, but schools that have begun making modifications to their food offerings are finding that better nutrition comes at a greater expenses.
“If you go to Costco and you buy a two pack of white bread, it’s going to cost around $4,” says Timothy Cipriano, executive director of food services and head chef at New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut. “That same pack of bread in whole wheat is probably going to cost around $4.25. While that’s not such a big deal for you or me, if you multiply that time thousands of kids, that price difference really adds up.”
New Haven Public schools began the switch to whole grains two years ago and now offers salad bars in 85% of its 46 public schools, according to Cipriano. The school system has also increased the amount of green and orange vegetables, and serves brown rice instead of white. Students get involved on a farm-to-table level via community gardens at some schools where they can grow vegetables that are then made available on the salad bar. Growing fresh vegetables helps lessen some of the cost burden to the schools, says Cipriano, but the school system is still running a deficit on its food spending.
“The main reason we run a deficit is because we are a Provision 2 school district, so most of our kids eat for free,” says Cipriano. “However, food costs have increased slightly since we implemented changes, and we’ve had to tighten up our menu. We used to have room for freebies like a frozen juice pop or a whole grain cookie, but those things cost us an extra 10 to 15 cents per child, and we don’t have room for that anymore if we’re also offering fresh vegetables and whole wheat pasta.”
But the new FDA regulations are asking for a lot more than fresh vegetables. Schools will be required to reduce sodium levels in meals from an average of 1,600 milligrams down to 740 milligrams or less for older students, and 640 milligrams or less for children in kindergarten through fifth grades. Meals must also meet calorie standards: lunches for children in fifth grade and younger must contain between 550 to 650 calories, and between750 to 850 calories for students in grades nine through 12. The regulations also require that schools serve only 1% or fat free milk, that at least half of all grains served are whole grains, and students must be offered two servings of vegetables at lunch.
Deborah Beauvais, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and supervisor of district school nutrition services at Gates Chili Central School District in Rochester, N.Y., says that while the new regulations are needed, budget concerns are paramount. The federal government currently gives public schools $2.72 per child for students on the free lunch program with only an additional 6 cents per student being offered when the new standards take effect.
“Now we have to offer two servings of fruits or vegetables at lunch, and according to my math, that’s going to cost a lot more than 6 cents per child, and at least 14 cents per child,” says Beauvais. “School district budgets are self supporting, and if the program does not break even, the school district itself will have to subsidize it. It could really be an issue, because many school districts have already faced budget cuts, and what we are looking at now is unfunded mandates.”
Another concerning element of the new law is whether or not kids will actually eat what they are served. Just because two vegetables are served, does not mean they will be eaten.
“We are all concerned about having very healthy garbage cans. It’s not nutrition if the child doesn’t eat it. If kids don’t consume what’s offered, it’s a real problem,” Beauvais says.
Schools may be able to save a few pennies by cooking from scratch rather than buying already-assembled meals to reheat, says Robyn Carlson, clinical dietitian at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago.
“If you make the switch to buying raw ingredients in bulk for cheap and actually cook foods from scratch, you can really save a lot of money,” says Carlson. “The only thing is that the kitchen staff are going to have to get a little more creative and each school may need a little more manpower to do it well.”
Carlson says that making food from scratch may also be an answer to the sodium level mandate; pre-packaged foods are higher in sodium than fresh foods. But unfortunately, experts say there’s no way around the increase in cost to improve student meals.
“They’re going to have to spend more, but it has to happen. More kids are getting Type 2 diabetes now than ever before. Should this be as much of a concern as their education? I think it is. It has to be. The school districts will have to find other areas to cut costs if they need to,” says Carlson.
But in the current economic environment, slashing the budget in other areas isn’t an option for schools. At Namaste Charter School in Chicago, school nutritionist and menu planner Sylvia Klinger says that fundraising has been a huge help to the school to raise money for fresh, organic foods. The school has also partnered with local farmer’s markets to get free fresh fruits and vegetables that haven’t sold at the end of the day.
“We try to be really creative and use resources that might otherwise go wasted,” says Klinger. “We’ll take unsold fruits and vegetables and use them as ingredients in the student’s lunches, or sometimes we will sell the donated produce to parents for $5 a crate and put the money toward the lunch program.”
Recently, Namaste Charter School raised $80,000 for its school lunch program via an event called “Chopping Block,” where the school partnered with a local culinary school and offered cooking classes for $150 per person.
“We taught people how to cook with fresh fruits and vegetables and at the same time raised money for our own students’ healthy eating,” says Klinger. “Of course we’re also not afraid to offer them the occasional grilled cheese. They are still kids, after all.”