Nutrition directors in Hall County and Gainesville school districts said a proclamation by newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue slowing the pace of upcoming regulations designed to make school meals more nutritious will help schools eventually be able to meet the requirements.
Perdue, a former Georgia governor, signed the proclamation this week delaying an upcoming requirement to lower the amount of sodium in meals while continuing to allow waivers for regulations that all grains in school lunches must be 51 percent whole grain. It also allows schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk instead of nonfat milk that was required under rules set during the Obama administration.
Cheryl Jones, Hall County School District nutrition director, called the decision “realistic.”
“We’re going to be able to have some flexibility,” she said. “We were very excited to hear his opinion on the milk — flavored milk — offering it at 1 percent instead of fat free. That was very unexpected.”
Penny Fowler, nutrition director in Gainesville City Schools, said she expects to meet the whole-grain requirements without a waiver, but officials are still working on the sodium level regulations.
“The Phase 2 sodium requirements, we were a little bit concerned with, so what (Perdue) is doing is going to allow us a little more time to get to the second limit,” she said.
Jones said Hall County schools have seen a decrease in students eating school meals since 2012 when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act began to be implemented. In 2012, 44.1 percent of all Hall County students were eating breakfast at school compared with 34.5 percent this year. The percentage for lunches has dropped from 77.9 percent in 2012 to 67.9 in 2017.
“We have struggled with participation decreasing; it’s kind of at a lull,” Jones said. “We have been working with industry to bring in products that are acceptable to our students in terms of palatability, taste, things like that. I think it had a very negative connotation from the way that it was presented, forcing kids to take foods they didn’t want, and having foods wind up in the trash can. We are not in the habit of feeding trash cans. I’m hoping with this flexibility we won’t make kids take foods they don’t want to eat.”
Gainesville schools have seen little change in the percentage of participation. Numbers are up 1 percent from 79 percent in 2012 to 80 percent this year for school lunches, while breakfast dropped 1 percent from 39 percent in 2012 to 38 percent this year. Fowler said her district is a Provision 2 school, which means breakfast and lunch are offered to students at no charge.
“I think it all depends on the school districts and the children and what they’re used to,” Fowler said. “Our kids may eat a lot of whole grains where kids up in the northern part of Georgia, they may not be accustomed to that. The waivers really help the other schools because they need that flexibility.”
Both Jones and Fowler said they do taste tests to find out what foods students enjoy eating.
“We have done taste tests and surveys working with manufacturers and distributors to bring in product samples,” Jones said. “We try to use whole muscle products that we know the kids like and we know is a good product. It costs a lot of money. Food costs have increased 11 percent over the course of this new meal pattern.”
Fowler said all of the items on the Gainesville menu for next school year are items students have tested in taste tests.
“I think school nutrition has changed drastically over the last five years,” she said. “We’re offering more fruits and vegetables now than we ever have. The students have more options. We were doing whole fruit a lot, but this year we brought in sliced bagged apples, sliced oranges and sliced grapefruit, and they went crazy over it.”