Food standards change in school districts

By: Tiffany Esshaki, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published February 27, 2015

 Pizza crusts are now required to be whole grain per the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutritional standards.

Pizza crusts are now required to be whole grain per the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutritional standards.

File photo by Erin Sanchez

METRO DETROIT — By now, schools should be putting the final topping on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutritional standards in the national school lunch and breakfast programs.

The USDA issued a final rule on school meal nutrition standards on Jan. 25, 2012, requiring schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain-rich foods; and fat-free or low-fat, 1 percent milk. The standards limit saturated fat and sodium, minimize trans fat, limit the calories that can be offered in a meal, and allow schools to offer tofu as a meat alternate.

The ruling went into effect starting in the 2012-13 school year and is intended to remedy nutritional shortfalls and address obesity.

Walled Lake Consolidated School District — which serves about 4,800 lunches and 1,200 breakfasts per day — was one of the first districts in Michigan to complete and implement the new standards in November 2012, according to Janet Allen, WLCSD food service supervisor.

“Each school district was required to submit their menus into the Michigan Department of Education for certification of implementing the new standards,” Allen said in an email. “We have made a few changes to the menu since then, and we remain in compliance with the new standards.”

In Birmingham Public Schools, the changes have been complete for some time, according to Operations Manager Stephen King and Assistant Operations Manager Matt Hess. In fact, Hess said, the district started getting ready for the big switch as far back as five years ago, before the federal government even formally announced the guidelines.

“The USDA reviews these guidelines in 10-year cycles, so if you’re watching, it’s all there. Anybody who didn’t see this coming is kind of blind,” said Hess.

At that time, BPS started pulling out its deep fryers and switched to become compliant with Alliance for a Healthier Generation standards. Then, as other milestones were rolled into the federal program, they seemed relatively minor, King said.

That easing-in process also helped students acclimate to the changes, too. Hess said that students now truly enjoy the menu items, which the dining staff works hard keep interesting within the guidelines. And now that the changes are in place, the budget has leveled off, as well.

“Every time there have been major changes, participation (lunch purchases) would dip a little — about 16 percent — and slowly increase back over a year’s time,” said King, adding that even labor and increased food costs have been offset by increased participation and efficient budgeting. “We’ve been holding costs on most expenses.”

The changes have altered WLCSD’s budget “dramatically,” Allen said. Food costs have increased by about 10 percent, and paper costs have increased by 2 percent. Despite the increase, participation in school meals has decreased, which Allen attributed to the decreased portion sizes.

“Mom packs a bigger sandwich than the school does,” Allen said.

As for students’ reaction to the meal changes, Allen said students are enjoying the fruit and vegetable variety.

“School food service departments are leading the way when it comes to whole-grain pizza crusts, buns, bread and pasta,” Allen said in an email. “The students are still getting used to the change in taste and texture.”

West Bloomfield School District students, on the other hand, “hate” the new meals, and the calorie limits are not enough to sustain a middle- or high-school athlete, according to Aimee Neubecker, athletic trainer for West Bloomfield Schools.

“(Students) think it’s the most disgusting thing they’ve ever eaten. They complain about it every day,” Neubecker said.

For instance, she said, the students are upset that they don’t have the same bread choices.

“If they’re going to opt out of a sandwich from a sandwich bar (because) of a whole-grain bread, they could be missing all the vegetables they could be putting on it,” Neubecker said. “The kids have to be active participants in the effort, and a lot of times they’re not.”

And while offering tofu as a meat alternate is a good vegetarian option, Neubecker said the schools should still be offering a milk option that is not fat-free or low-fat so students get the extra calories and protein.

Per the new standards, kindergarten to fifth-grade students must have a minimum of 550 calories and a maximum of 650 calories per lunch, sixth- to eighth-grade students must have a minimum of 600 calories and a maximum of 700 calories per lunch, and ninth- to 12th-grade students must have a minimum of 750 calories and a maximum of 850 calories.

A student doing nothing but lying on the couch all day would burn 1,781 calories, Neubecker said. If a student is moderately active throughout the day — including walking to school, participating in physical education class or jogging — the student would burn about 2,450-2,760 calories.

A 16-year-old football player who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and 150 pounds, and practicing 2 1/2 to three hours a day, would burn about 1,000-1,200 calories just at practice — not including any other activity in the day — Neubecker said. That athlete should be eating 3,500-4,000 calories a day. Student athletes who are taller and weigh more than Neubecker’s example athlete require more calories, she added.

“If they had three 750-calorie meals a day, that’s 2,250 calories. They’re needing 4,000 (calories). That’s 1,700 less than what they should be getting. In a little under three days, they would have been 3,500 calories in deficit, and that’s a pound loss,” Neubecker said.

Allen said in an email that WLCSD did hear from concerned parents and students about the decreased portion sizes; however, the “good news is that they can take up to four fruits and/or vegetable servings if they are still hungry.”

If a full meal is taken, all the essential nutrients are met based on the new nutrition standards. However, with the new regulations, students may not have the time to eat a portion of their meal or want to eat the meal, creating food waste, Allen said in an email.

“By requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable, it is one step closer to avoiding some of the nutrient shortfalls,” Allen said in an email.

But nutrition isn’t the only place where shortfalls are being seen. According to some PTA leaders around metro Detroit, the new standards have caused some hiccups in fundraising, since many of the usual revenue sources are food-based campaigns.

“We’re probably down about $2,000,” said Molly Williams, president of the Bingham Farms Elementary PTA in Birmingham. “It’s safe to say that’s a 30 percent decrease in revenue. We’ve had to come up with a few additional fundraisers to supplement that income.”

Williams said the biggest hits to the PTA’s revenue this year were its annual ice cream sales, where students can have ice cream each Friday by purchasing weekly or buying ahead for the year, and also morning bagel sales. Both fundraisers were delayed at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year while parents figured out how to meet the new nutritional requirements.

“For the ice cream, we had to go to fruit (bars). So presales were down for the first few months while we figured that out. And the bagels are smaller now and they taste different — honestly, they cost a little bit more because we had to work with the bagel company to meet the criteria, and we’re really not making money on them anymore. We really do bagel sales because it’s a tradition at Bingham Farms,” she said.

But that’s not to say the nutritional standards aren’t a good thing, Williams said; it’s just an adjustment. PTAs will figure out more non-food-oriented fundraisers to bring in cash, and eventually this will become the norm. It was just the timing that took parents by surprise.

“We got word about the guidelines after school was out, when we were getting ready to do ice cream presales. It was just the timing,” she said. “In a couple of years, we’ll be able to plan ahead and be in much better shape. I think it will gain some traction.”