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Schools seek to satisfy students, USDA
Above, Axton Elementary Cafeteria Manager Peggy Adams (left) oversees the serving line during lunch at the school. Local schools receive a six-cent reimbursement per lunch served by serving a menu that is certified to meet federal requirements. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
For students in area schools, that question is not as simple as it sounds.
Federal guidelines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) apply to everything that goes on a student’s plate — or tray, as the case may be. So when the USDA rolled out new, more strict guidelines in January 2012, it meant officials such as Marci Lexa, director of school nutrition for Henry County Schools, had more on her plate as well.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which took nearly two years to implement, mandated that students had to be served precise amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. It also limited the amount of total calories, saturated fat, sodium and trans fat that could be consumed on average during a five-day week. Creativity was needed to meet the minimums without exceeding the maximums, Lexa said.
“We played a real balancing game to get these menus to work,” she said.
That balancing game became enough of an issue in some parts of the country that lawmakers pressed the USDA to relax some of its standards on grains, starches and proteins, according to Associated Press reports. As a result, the USDA announced in December that it would allow a higher concentration of grains and protein in school lunches per week, Lexa said.
“You’re still required to serve the minimum per day, but the maximum per week has been relaxed,” she said.
Part of the reason lawmakers complained, she said, was the concern that some schools weren’t feeding students enough calories, meaning some students were left hungry at the end of the day. In Henry County, however, that wasn’t the case, because the school district already provided children more than the minimum amount of calories allowed on average per week.
The relaxed guidelines didn’t take effect until the second semester, but they will remain in place for the 2013-14 school year, Lexa said.
“When they relaxed that, for us it really didn’t make any difference,” she said. Though some schools “could add a grain or a half (ounce) of meat or meat alternate, we can’t do that, because in general, we’re within 25 calories of exceeding the range anyway.”
Meat alternates are anything that can replace a meat, such as beans or cheese on a sandwich, Lexa explained.
Since the numbers schools must meet are aggregated over a week, she said, that gives them flexibility to play with the menu to allow for things like holidays or parties, when higher-calorie entrees or desserts might be served.
“You have a lot of flexibility. If one of your entrees is really high in calories, you can adjust to make sure several of them aren’t. It’s all about balance,” Lexa said.
Which is not to say there weren’t complaints. For example, tighter USDA restrictions limit the amount of grains that can be served, she said. Therefore, any time a meat is breaded — such as a breaded chicken sandwich — the breading counts as a grain. As a result, the sandwich buns had to be lighter to the dismay of many students.
“We had to change to flatbread buns,” Lexa said. “Kids were happier with that.”
For the most part, at least. “You’ll still hear one or two say ‘how come we can’t have a regular hamburger bun?’” said Frances Perdue, school nutrition manager at Bassett High School. “I think, overall, they’ve gotten used to it.”
Sheilah Williams, school nutrition director for Martinsville Public Schools, said that while the division initially had gone to all whole grain breads when the new standards took effect, that policy has been relaxed slightly to ease the initial shock to young systems.
“Many of our students were not used to the whole grain bread,” Williams said. “They eat with their eyes. They eat what they’re familiar with.”
Though total calories are averaged over the course of a week, Williams said one difficulty is the lack of variation of total calories allowed. For example, she said, only about 100 calories separate the daily maximum allowed on average between elementary and middle school students.
“Can you imagine an eighth-grader eating the same thing as a fifth-grader?” she said.
If all the guidelines are met, Lexa said, she can submit a spreadsheet detailing a weekly menu, how it was prepared and all the relevant nutrition information. “That took some time,” she said.
If the USDA certifies the menu, the school system is reimbursed 6 cents per lunch served, Lexa said.
In all, she estimated that 5,800 lunches are served per day in Henry County schools. Lexa writes the menus on a five-week cycle, she said, which helps control costs, add variety and avoid too many repeats. The school division consistently gets that reimbursement, she added.
While Williams said the city schools are “taking baby steps” toward being certified, she has altered the menus to target the new USDA standards. Williams, who also serves as director of the Clearview Early Learning Center, writes a six-week menu.
“With all the changes, we were basically forced to do that,” she said, adding that the amount of record keeping to reach the USDA reimbursement standard was “going to be astronomical.” She hopes to have the city’s menus certified at some point during the next school year.
While adding more whole grains was a shock, she said adding more fruits and vegetables to reach USDA standards has been less difficult.
For most children in the city, it’s “just an added plus” to get an extra fruit in their lunch, she said. “You have to encourage them to take the vegetables,” but most of the students now are “eating veggies people once said they would never eat.”
Perdue, who first came to work at Bassett in 1985, said there was some resistance to the additional fruits and vegetables there at first.
“Before, if they had a meat, a bread and a milk, that would be enough,” she said. “At first, some of them didn’t want it, and now a lot of them are excited to get the fresh fruit. A lot of them don’t get the fresh fruit at home.”
Lexa said at least one vegetable or fruit served is “kid friendly,” such as mashed potatoes, baby carrots, green beans or corn. The combination of fresh and canned fruits and vegetables also has made things easier, as has giving students choices of two fruits and one vegetable or vice versa.
Some area schools also benefit from a USDA grant program that provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack during the day, either before or after their lunch periods. The grant is available to schools that have 63 percent or more of their students on free or reduced school lunches.
Lexa said nearly 65 percent of students in Henry County qualify for free or reduced lunches, so seven county schools qualify for the snack program. “Each year, I’ve tried to get more on,” she said.
Albert Harris Elementary and Clearview Early Learning Center both qualify for the fresh fruit and vegetable program, Williams said. Division wide, 74 percent of students in Martinsville City Public Schools qualify for free and reduced school lunches, but she added that 95 percent of students at Clearview and 97 at Albert Harris are on the free and reduced program.
The emphasis of the snacks is to serve the fruits or vegetables as close to their natural state as possible, Lexa said.
“It’s not things they would normally get to try.” she said. “We get to try all kinds of funky things. We’ve steamed collard greens or kale, or they might have steamed squash or something like that.”
The snack grant program is prefunded at the start of the school year, so the recent federal budget sequestration doesn’t affect it or the free/reduced lunch program, Lexa said.
“That’s a good thing, because I don’t know how we’d feed the kids” otherwise, she said.
Williams said her main concern in rewriting the city’s menus has been keeping enough variety to keep students interested. “You’ve got to meet the federal regs, but if you’re not having customers eating, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” she said.