PLATTSBURGH — When Lynnettia Fields began classes at Keeseville Elementary School last week, she noticed something different about the meals being served in the cafeteria.
“There’s more veggies,” the fifth-grader said Tuesday as she ate her school lunch of pasta and salad.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified its guidelines for school food programs in an effort to provide healthier meals to kids across the country as part of the national Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The new requirements, some of which were to be implemented by the start of this school year, focus on reducing the amount of calories and fat in school meals and increasing students’ intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“The goal is to try to reduce childhood obesity,” said Stephen Broadwell, superintendent of Willsboro Central School.
Schools are now required to double their serving sizes of fruits and vegetables and must incorporate healthier vegetable options, such as dark green, red and orange vegetables and beans and other legumes.
In addition, students must now select at least one fruit or vegetable to be part of each of their school meals.
“Previously, students didn’t have to chose a fruit or vegetable at all,” said Laura Marlow, superintendent of Northern Adirondack Central School.
NO TRANS FAT
Also this year, 50 percent of all grain foods served in schools must be wholegrain rich, and 100 percent must be so by the 2014-15 school year.
And students can say goodbye to 2 percent milk, as the USDA requires that only skim and 1 percent milk be served in school cafeterias.
The new guidelines also mandate that school meals contain no trans fats and an average of less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.
“It’s a reinforcement of our commitment to good nutrition for the kids,” Marlow said.
“We all know that well-nourished kids do better in school.”
By the 2013-14 school year, school menus must be adapted to individual age groups of students to ensure each is being provided the proper amount of calories, and by 2014-15, sodium levels in school meals must be reduced.
“Hopefully, what they pick up from the school meals will carry over to the meals at home,” said Northern Adirondack Central Business Executive Brian Tousignant.
But while area school officials agreed that the new guidelines are in the best interest of children’s health, they also said the changes cause some concern.
For example, Malone Central School Business Administrator Timothy Whipple pointed out that just because students are required to take a fruit or vegetable at each meal, it doesn’t mean they will eat it.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of waste,” he said. “They’ll take the items, but they’re going to end up throwing a lot of them away.”
Broadwell, on the other hand, is optimistic that the new guidelines will result in students developing tastes for healthier foods.
“I think they’re going to have more choices for lunches, and hopefully that’s going to encourage them to eat and explore different kinds of food,” he said.
Many kids at Keeseville Elementary said they didn’t mind having to take a fruit or vegetable with their meals.
“I feel good,” said fifth-grader Dakota Christian, who on Tuesday opted to eat both broccoli and a fruit cup for lunch.
And though one student did indicate that he was contemplating throwing away his mandatory serving of vegetables, fifth-grader Maggie Hayes said she thinks her peers will eat them most of the time.
“It helps us grow,” Fields added.
The monetary cost of implementing the new requirements is another factor to be considered, especially at a time when many area school districts are already struggling. Officials cite reductions in state aid and the state-imposed property-tax cap, which limits the amount of revenue schools can acquire from taxpayers.
Officials from Northern Adirondack, Willsboro and Malone central schools all anticipate being able to maintain self-sustaining meal programs, but they also agree that meeting the new guidelines won’t be cheap.
“Healthier eating costs more,” Marlow said, “so obviously there’s going to be a financial impact.”
“It’s definitely going to be more money,” Whipple said.
Exactly what the financial impact on schools will be, however, remains to be seen.
The state and federal governments are expected to reimburse at least some of the cost of meals to schools that are in full compliance with the new nutrition standards, but, Tousignant said, it is still unclear exactly how that reimbursement would work.
Still, Broadwell said, “if it increases the overall health of our children, then certainly we are all for that.”
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