At CCS, an improved, nutritional menu – for starters
By Mandi Cheesman
If you have, or ever have had, a child in school, you’ve undoubtedly asked, “Are you taking your lunch or buying it at school?”
You’ve probably never stopped to think much beyond your child’s answer, but there is an entire army of people and procedures in place to make sure your child is able to reply, “Buying.”
And some of those procedures have pushed the school-lunch program, and those responsible for its success, under an uncomfortable spotlight recently.
Carmel Clay Schools participates in the federally regulated National School Lunch Program, which operates in more than 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and day-care centers across the nation. Because it participates in the program, CCS earns a cash subsidy for each meal it serves and the opportunity to buy reduced-cost food from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
In return, it must offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children and serve meals that meet federal nutritional requirements. And meeting those requirements recently hasn’t been easy. In 2010 the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directed the USDA to update the program’s nutritional standards to mimic the latest “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The largest part of the new meal requirements went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, and, in some cases, the complaining began shortly thereafter – especially about whole-grain mandates which left some children longing for their white-bread buns and white potato French fries.
“This is all about healthy meals and doing good things for kids, and I have no problem with the goal of the federal lunch program,” said Roger McMichael, assistant superintendent of business affairs at CCS. “But, along with changes, it also involves certain challenges.”
Challenges include getting children to eat foods to which they might not be accustomed, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and legumes. But they are challenges that McMichael has been hearing throughout his three-plus decades in education.
“For 35 years I’ve been hearing that kids won’t eat school lunches,” he said. “But the fact is, the food provided in Carmel Clay Schools, and I would suggest in every school in the U.S., is much, much more nutritious now than it has ever been.”
And that is the goal of the ever-changing USDA program. The School Lunch Program has been evolving since its inception in1946. Every five years, the legislation governing the program is re-authored as a part of the nation’s farm bill, and the most recent changes reflect revisions to the program through 2022, according to Betsey Flores, assistant director of food and nutrition services at CCS.
“As with most legislation, when it’s passed, it gets interpreted and then the interpretation changes, and it is the same with this program,” McMichael said. “It is in a constant state of evolving into new guidelines; you never quite get there.”
One interpretation that changed quickly after it was introduced was how much is too much. As You Tube became flooded with videos of students claiming to be too weak from hunger to perform their duties, legislators reviewed their newly announced edict that not only would there be minimum serving sizes, but maximum serving sizes as well.
“Students were leaving hungry because they saw smaller serving sizes,” Flores said. “The USDA recognized this and took away the maximums requirement, and we went back to normal serving sizes and completely eliminated the hunger issue. That was a big deal and the USDA took note and backed off that one idea.”
And it did so quickly. The maximum serving size was introduced in August 2012 and rescinded in December. But solving that problem created a problem for another spoke in the wheel that must spin to feed the nearly 13,000 students that buy food every day during lunch at Carmel’s 15 schools.
“When the USDA changed its portion-size mandates, it left the food suppliers with a whole lot of food we could no longer sell,” Mary Beth Rippy, a school specialist with Supreme Great Lakes, a vendor which represents food manufacturers such as Jennie-O, Basic American and Advance-Pierre. “This was good for the kids but bad for the manufacturers.”
‘AT A HUGE COST’
Rippy said the constantly changing USDA lunch program requirements affect her manufacturers greatly.
“These changes come at a huge cost to the manufacturers,” she said. “And there has never before been a situation where they had to reformulate or change a whole category until recently with the whole grains.”
Coming up with new breading and whole-grain snacks with little to no warning was a test for many of her manufacturers, Rippy said, and it was, too, for many of her food service directors.
“I feel bad for them,” she said. “Many of them just said, ‘I’m going to retire.’ A lot has been put on them.”
Including the fault for childhood obesity, which Rippy said is unfair to blame on five meals a week.
“Kids are in school 180 days out of 365,” he said. “We will assume some of the responsibility for childhood obesity, but not all of it.”