“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” and it appears the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees.
Earlier this year, the USDA, along with first lady Michelle Obama, pushed ahead with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, aimed at raising nutrition standards for the some 32 million students that eat school lunches during the school year.
“School meals that are served to 32 million American children at noon are going to feature every school day of the week, fruits and vegetables every day,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and customer service.
“That’s a change and an improvement. Healthier dairy; lower fat dairy. More water. Water guaranteed to every schoolchild. More whole grains in terms of the breads that are served.”
Andrea Thomas, the nutrition director for Hall County Schools, said the system was already working toward providing healthier meals before the USDA initiative was announced.
Schools must start implementing the new procedures this year.
“Well, all school systems are to follow the initiative for lunch stating this year,” Thomas said. “We were very close and we didn’t have to make very many changes to our menu as far as fruits and vegetables.”
School cafeterias, starting this fall, must provide at least 1 cup of fruit per day; half of all grains served must be whole-grain; only fat-free and low-fat milk can be offered; and vegetable subgroups must be present on the menu weekly.
“I see it as a good thing,” said Amailia Cruz, a senior at Johnson High School. “Usually people get a lot of greasy stuff and not a lot of healthy stuff. So I find it much better that people are starting to eat healthier.”
Cruz and classmate Yadira Munoz said they have seen changes in lunch food over their four years at Johnson High, especially in the offering of fruits.
They say the additional fruits and grains are a welcomed component of the daily menu.
“If people want to start eating healthier, they can start eating school lunches, and that’s a good thing,” Munoz said.
And, Thomas said, over the next few years lunches, along with breakfasts, will become even more healthy.
By 2014, all breakfast and lunch grains must be whole-grain and by 2022 the sodium levels in school lunches will have dropped to less than 210 mg per meal.
“We are still looking at our menus and we still have some work to do as far making sure we’re in compliance with calories and all that,” said Thomas.
This year, lunches for high schoolers must be between 750 and 850 calories per meal.
And, some students say, the push for a healthier school has its advantages.
“It helps out a lot with sports,” Cruz said. “It pushes them to do better and helps them set goals.”
But, Thomas said, the changes come with some challenges.
Two of the biggest ones, she said, are getting vendors to start selling products that align with the federal initiative and getting students to open up to the new kinds of food.
“So the acceptance of these kinds of things is where we’ll have to work through and that’s where our vendors come in,” she said. “So there are some small things that we are trying to work through.”
An example Thomas gave was the switch to a whole-wheat biscuit. Students, she said, can sometimes have a hard time moving away from the traditional Southern fare.
“Changing our biscuits to a whole-wheat biscuit has given our students a little bit of a culture shock,” said Thomas.
But however slow, students are starting to come around.
“The biscuits have gotten much healthier,” said Cruz. “It kind of looks more healthy as well.”
And Thomas said the changes have not put more pressure, or much more work, on cafeteria workers.
If anything, she said, it motivates them a little more knowing they’re serving better food.
“I think it just solidifies that we’re on the right track,” she said.
Federal officials think the new initiative could spark more interest in school lunches.
“It could make a very significant impact in participation in the cafeteria,” said Audrey Rowe, administrator, USDA Food and Nutrition Service. “We want children to eat in the cafeteria. We now want parents who are packing school lunches to look at the cafeteria as a really healthy alternative for their students.”
And, through a free and reduced lunch program, a number of students could get a healthy lunch at an affordable — or free — price. To register for that program, visit the webiste.