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One year ago, U.S. school districts scrambled to revamp menus and food preparation to comply with new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules for healthier school meals. So what was the experience of two local districts? Kids had healthier choices and more fresh food-but each meal cost the district more to prepare and there was more food waste.
"There was so much backlash to the new healthy meals program [last year] that the USDA provided districts with more flexibility at the end of last year," said Old Saybrook Food Service Director Maureen Nuzzo.
Compliance with the federal 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requires schools to offer more fresh fruit and vegetables, set average calorie limits for daily lunches, and offer fewer grain and starch portions each week.
Before, school lunches had to include a total of one-half to three-quarters of a cup of fruit and vegetables, divided between the two, each day. Now each student must be offered three-quarters of a cup of vegetables per day and one-half to one cup of fresh fruit per day. Each student tray must have either the fruit or vegetable portion on it when it leaves the lunch line or the district cannot be reimbursed for a portion of the meal's cost.
USDA reimbursement rates vary. For regular paid lunches, the district receives $.27 for each meal, but the district receives more for meals served to students qualifying for free or reduced- priced meals: $2.46 for a reduced-price lunch and $2.86 for a free lunch.
Under the old rules, the USDA didn't specify which vegetable sub-groups must be offered each week; now it does. Over the course of each week, the school lunch menus now must offer a minimum amount of each of these vegetable types: dark green, red/orange, beans/peas (legumes), starchy, and other.
The new rules also limited the number of grain and starch portions offered each week. At the beginning of last school year, the rules meant that students could receive only nine grain portions (such as a slice of bread) per week. A result: students couldn't have five days of sandwiches.
"The agency for adjusted the guidelines on portion size for meat and meat-alternates and rules for grains," said Nuzzo.
Now districts can include 8 to 10 grain portions weekly in K-8 students' meals and 10 to 12 portions in high school students' meals. And of the five required components of a school lunch, students must take a minimum of three, with one being a one-half cup of fruit or a vegetable serving.
The rule's calorie limits by school level remained the same, however, districts still must carefully count each meal's calories.
For students in grades K to 5, the daily calorie average for five days of lunches is set at 550 to 650 calories; for middle school students, it's 600 to 700 calories; and for high school students, 750 to 850 calories. The limits reflect calories of the food and a beverage.
What the federal calorie limits don't recognize is differences between individual student' caloric intake needs, except by school level, so the program sets the same calorie limits for all high school students' meals whether the student is a high school football player burning many calories in daily practice or a petite young woman.
For some students, the new school meal program guidelines means program-compliant meals leave them hungry. And if a student chooses not to eat the fresh fruit or vegetable portions in the meal, they may not consume enough calories-and the rejected food is thrown away.
Two Districts' Reactions
Two local school representatives recently shared their district's experience with the meal program's first year.
Lesley Wysocki, the Westbrook Public Schools business manager, reports that student participation in the first year of the new healthy meals program was down last year; fewer meals were sold compared to the prior year. With more fresh fruits and vegetables in each meal, meals cost more to make and new meal prices were still not high enough to offset the higher preparation costs.
"The federal program forces us to give fruits and vegetables to each kid, whether they want it or not. We are forced to pay for the cost of fresh food that ends up in the trash," said Wysocki. "It's very sad-and the kids are hungry."
To compensate for the higher costs of implementing the new meal program, the Westbrook Board of Education last year raised lunch prices by 25 cents and contributed $50,000 to subsidize it. The lunch prices and subsidy will remain the same this year, according to Wysocki.
Westbrook Schools' meal prices for 2013-'14 therefore will be $2.25 for lunch at Daisy Ingraham Elementary School, $2.50 for lunch at Westbrook Middle School, and $2.75 for lunch at Westbrook High School.
In Old Saybrook, Food Service Director Maureen Nuzzo said that district students didn't reduce their meal purchases under the new healthy foods program started in fall 2012.
"We really had a successful year by offering healthy student-friendly meals that put emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Students adapted extremely well, and I believe, with the experience of last year, the 2013-'14 year will be successful as well," said Nuzzo.
New fresh options introduced included fresh crudités with a small cup of hummus, for example.
Nuzzo said that despite the program's success, schools still saw more food waste at the elementary school than before. Some students still threw out the fresh foods they were given.
The school districts breakfast program at the schools actually saw higher participation last year, however. Breakfast is offered at both Goodwin Elementary School and at the Old Saybrook Middle School. Nuzzo attributes the increased participation to the new Breakfast in the Classroom model.
In recognition of the district's successful transition to the new program and its breakfast program, in April, Goodwin Elementary School received the Healthier U.S. School Challenge bronze award.
Meal prices in Old Saybrook's schools this year are as follows: Goodwin Elementary School will offer a breakfast bundle for $1.50 and lunch for $2.50; the middle school will provide breakfast for $2 and lunch for $2.75; at the high school, breakfast will cost $2.25 and lunch $3. For students who qualify, the cost of a reduced-price breakfast is 30 cents and a reduced price lunch is 40 cents.