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New school lunch menu is kid tested and approved

POSTED: August 11, 2014 1:28 a.m.

Remember those little milk cartons from elementary through high school? They haven't gone away, but now come in skim and low-fat varieties.

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Recent changes in what’s offered for lunch at school cafeterias hasn’t fazed students, according to school officials.

Under the federal school nutrition standards that began in the 2012-2013 school year, students must put a fruit or vegetable on their plate in order for the meal to be reimbursed with federal dollars. Gainesville and Hall County districts say students ignoring or throwing away the healthier foods has not been a significant problem.

“Our students are big on fruit,” said Penny Fowler, director of school food nutrition for the Gainesville school system. “That’s a blessing.”

“Change takes time, and last year was the first year they had to pick up a half cup (of) fruit or vegetable,” said Trae Cown, nutrition coordinator for Hall County Schools, adding food being thrown away, “is not necessarily what we’re seeing here. They’re getting used to it.”

Gainesville High School cafeteria manager Brandy Thomas said the fruits and vegetables have gone over well with students.

“Believe it or not, they eat it,” she said, “especially the whole, fresh fruit.”

Thomas said students also enjoy the larger number of food choices they have under the new standards. She said at Gainesville High School, students may choose from five entrees.

While menus still include school lunch staples such as pizza, chicken nuggets and cheeseburger macaroni, they also include things like entree salads, tomato slices, seasoned greens and fresh fruit.

Cown and Fowler said they put a lot of effort into creating recipes that are both healthy and tasty.

“I try to have a scratch-made item every day on the menu,” Cown said. “The menu drives everything we do.”

The standards are a component of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, but federal regulation dates back to the 1946 National School Lunch Act, which secured funding for free and reduced-price school lunches.

Today, the program has expanded to provide more food, including breakfast, and ensure the food served allows children to meet their nutritional needs.

Standards require schools serve a specific amount of fruits and vegetables, meat or meat alternatives, whole grains and milk each day. They also set limits on calories, saturated fat and sodium for each meal at breakfast and lunch.

For lunches, the requirements for types of food served are even more specific, with regulations not only for the amount of vegetables served, but for specific types of vegetables. Schools must monitor their offerings of dark green vegetables, red or orange vegetables, beans or peas and starchy vegetables each week.

Depending on the age group and type of meal being served, calorie limits range from 500 to 850, while sodium limits range from 540 to 1,420 milligrams per meal.

Fowler said schools began preparing for the regulations before they went into effect.

“Roughly about 2« years ago, we started implementing them,” she said. “We did small steps; I call it baby steps.”

Both districts have implemented programs to help students see the value of

In Hall County, cafeterias are decorated with educational posters on topics including sodium, sugar and hydration. The district also works with the Alliance for a Healthier Georgia to send a healthier message to kids.

“It’s the entire school environment as a whole,” and not just the school nutrition department, Cown said, that sends that message. “Hall County has been very proactive, even before the regulations came out.”

Gainesville schools try to keep a line of communication open with parents when it comes to school nutrition. Fowler said menus are color-coded so parents can easily see which food categories are being offered to their children, and the schools send out a nutrition newsletter and keep their websites updated.

The district uses a grant-funded fruit and vegetable taste-testing program to communicate healthy choices to its younger students. Fowler said healthy foods kids may not have tried before, such as radishes, will be brought to elementary school classrooms for tasting.

“It’s fun to see the reactions,” she said. “Especially when we use onions, the reactions of the teachers are like, ‘No, you didn’t.’”

Fowler said from her experience, exposure to foods is what gets kids eating them.

“We’ve found if you have it often enough, they’re going to try it,” she said.

Keeping up with nutritional guidelines and the funding that is contingent on those guidelines is a time-consuming process, so each district employs a school nutrition coordinator. Fowler said in Gainesville the position is funded with federal dollars.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s all I know,” said Fowler. “I love it. I love school nutrition.”

The Gainesville district qualifies for funding that allows every student to eat breakfast and lunch free every day. The funding must be reapplied for every four years, and the district is set to reapply in April.

Fowler said this means the school nutrition is entirely federally funded in Gainesville, but those funds are received as reimbursements on a per-meal basis. This means a lot of record keeping and other paperwork is involved.

“You can go in the red, and then the general fund (which includes local revenues) would have to pick up and support our program,” she said. “You just have to be careful, making sure your claims are correct, keeping down food cost and waste.”

In Hall County, the program is funded by a combination of federal dollars, lunch fees and a state funds. Around 60 percent of students in the district receive free or reduced lunch, and a projected 30,000 meals per day will be served this school year.

The larger district also has a larger budget.

“I’m projecting just over $7 million for the lunch program,” Jones said, “and just over $3 million for breakfasts, and only $684,000 for snacks.”

Students who do not receive free or reduced-price lunch pay from $1 to $1.70 per meal, depending on grade level and type of meal. After-school snacks are provided by the YMCA at no cost to the students.


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