Parents of school-age children know kids might not talk much about their days without a lot of prodding.
But after Oct. 1, dinner table conversations around the country might revolve more around lunch.
A change in federal guidelines for school cafeterias in 2012-13 requires student meals to be planned according to a new nutritional model designed to combat obesity and dietary imbalances.
The new ChooseMyPlate program requires meals to:
- be planned along “age-appropriate calorie minimums and maximums” (i.e., there are different calorie counts for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, grades 6 through 8, and grades 9 through 12.)
- reduce sodium intake
- contain more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, larger servings of fruits and vegetables—and students “must take at least one serving of a fruit or a vegetable”
- offer low-fat or 1 percent milk only (as opposed to fattier concentrations)
The search for skinny bread
Norman Horn, director of sales and marketing for Nutri-Serve Food Management of Burlington, NJ, said that the changes were both necessary and appropriate, even if they are taxing to some food vendors scrambling to comply.
A big challenge, he said, is cutting carbohydrates from the ingredient list “in a hoagie/sub kind-of-world,” he said.
“We’re trying to find, in so many words, ‘skinny bread,’” Horn said. “A slice of bread is an ounce, but if you’re at an elementary school, your maximum is nine for the week. When you get to the high schools, the high school’s only allowed 12 ounces a week. So we don’t have the bigger rolls.”
Horn said schools are being asked not only to eliminate bread servings, but to meet a 50 percent whole-grain threshold, which many kids aren’t used to eating on typical favorites like cheesesteak and pizza.
And according to Nutri-Serve, the most popular lunches in the district are: pizza; chicken nuggets, patties or tenders; and breakfast items for lunch.
“We’re not mom, so we can’t cook like mom,” Horn said. “We’re not exactly what every child wants or is used to. You want it to be individualized [but] your recipes are based on what’s a good blend for the district or the whole school.”
From 'lunch ladies' to 'food coaches'
This year, students are also going to be required to take fruits and vegetables with their meals for the first time. Legumes, like dark red and green beans, will be served more frequently. Cafeteria aides are going to have to become “food coaches,” Horn said—and students will have to play ball.
“As a kid you didn’t grab that little container of peaches or the broccoli,” Horn said. “Now they can’t go past the cashier.”
Students who refuse to balance their meals will be charged a la carte prices for each individual component of their meals instead of the $2.50 (at the elementary school) or $2.75 (at the high school) inclusive price.
Even if students do take the vegetables, there’s a chance they might just throw them away, which is painful to see in such a shoestring operation.
“Are the high school kids going to throw those peaches away and just not eat them anyway?” Horn asked. “We’re hoping not. We’re trying to spend time teaching our trainers to talk it up. Elementary is going to be easier than middle; middle’s going to be easier than high school.”
The Collingswood High School cafeteria has a hot line and a cold line, and serves “probably 17 different entrees” daily, Horn said. Breakfast is offered at every school, but the five elementary schools are all satellite kitchens, “which adds a whole other difficult element to the process,” because the food must be prepared centrally and then delivered throughout the borough.
Pennies on the dollar
Then, of course, there’s the financial component to consider. For every meal it serves that meets the federal standard, Collingswood is reimbursed 6¢. The flip side, Horn said, is that whole grains and produce are more expensive ingredients—and "6¢ isn’t going to really cover what we have to do."
“They’re adapting too, the commodity people, because everything they had scheduled didn’t meet the guidelines,” he said. “They have to switch what they’re doing, what their plan was.”
In Collingswood, 523 students are eligible to receive free school lunches and another 137 may buy lunch at the reduced price of 40¢. Participation in the program is currently at about 70 percent, said Eileen Tarcelli, food service director for Collingswood schools.
School lunch, by law, “has to be break-even or better,” Horn said. To get there, he said, the district needs something like five more kids at every school to buy lunch who weren’t buying before.
"We’re trying to market ourselves, whatever participation we can gain," he said.
“We can’t go get more kids off the street,” Horn said.