ELKHART — New nutrition guidelines for school lunches for the 2012-13 school year made preparing menus in local schools a little more difficult this year.
From enticing children to try unfamiliar fruits and vegetables to finding the right balance of grains, protein and other nutrients in each meal, food service directors have had a lot of changes to make.
The new rules increased the number of fruits and vegetables that must be offered each day, required 50 percent of all grains offered to be whole grains, limited the fat, calories and sodium allowed in meals and required students to take at least one fruit or vegetable with their meal.
Some Elkhart County school districts have found the transition to the new requirements difficult.
The new rules included caps on the amounts of protein and grains that can be offered each day and required students to take at least one fruit or vegetable with their meal. These caps were removed during the fall semester.
There are also rules for the types of fruits and vegetables a school can offer.
Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, can only be served once a week, said Jan VanderReyden, food services coordinator for Concord Community Schools.
“The favorite (vegetables) by far were corn and potatoes,” VanderReyden said. “Now we’re limited where we can only serve corn or potatoes once each week, where before we could serve both in a week.”
Schools must also offer a certain amount of legumes, leafy greens and red or orange vegetables.
To meet the legumes requirement, Concord began mixing black beans into the salsa and serving refried beans.
Many of the new fruits and vegetables offered in school cafeterias are foreign to students and schools are looking for way to entice children to try them.
“It used to be that if you wanted to get kids to eat something, you could just pour cheese over it,” VanderReymer said with a laugh.
Under the new requirements, however, schools don’t have enough wiggle room in the weekly fat, calories and sodium limits to add extra cheese and had to find another solution.
In Baugo Community Schools, students are given the chance to sample new items before they go on the menu, said Carol Deak, the district’s food service coordinator.
Hummus, cucumber slices and black bean salsa were all well-received by students.
Elkhart Community Schools runs a Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program in eight of its elementary schools, where students are introduced to new foods.
“If you give it a fun name, and show them things they can make with it, that helps,” said Nicole Schwartz, who runs the FFVP and Farm-to-School program used in the other elementary schools. Schwartz is also the district’s bid and commodities coordinator.
Schwartz said blood oranges, snap peas and squash coins have been some of the most popular items in the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program. The program is sponsored by Martin’s and Sheldon’s and the stores place signs near the fruits and vegetables the kids have tried in school to help parents find them.
INCREASE IN WASTE
Many students, however, do not eat the fruit or vegetable they are required to take with their meals.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the number of trash bags we go through because there’s more going into them,” VanderReymer said.
One school, in order to estimate how much food was being thrown out, collected the food students threw out in one day and piled it in the cafeteria’s dish room.
“It was a little bit astounding,” VanderReymer said.
VanderReymer, Deak and Pam Melcher, food service director of Elkhart Community Schools, all agree that education is the best way to combat waste.
Signs posted in the cafeteria urge students to reconsider what they’re throwing away and offer information about the benefits of some of the foods students are more likely to throw out.
“We tried to educate students on what they had to take,” Melcher said. Many students were under the impression they had to take everything offered.
“If we offer a big variety, hopefully we can get to everybody’s taste buds because not everybody will like everything,” Melcher said.
THE CERTIFICATION PROCESS
To prove a district is in compliance with the new regulations, it must submit a complex spreadsheet to the USDA detailing the nutrition data for each meal the district serves, from the chicken nuggets down to the ketchup packets.
Completing the spreadsheet becomes more complicated for high school cafeterias, VanderReymer said.
At Concord High School, students can choose from up to 20 different meals each day. Although the students enjoy the variety, this complicates the certification process and requires dozens more entries into the spreadsheet, VanderReymer said.
Another issue some schools have come across is that many of them, especially smaller districts, serve recipes that were developed by the schools and do not come with the readily-available nutrition data found on packaged foods. For those instances, Concord and Baugo schools have turned to Kaylyn Herrold, a registered dietitian at the Northern Indiana Educational Service Center.
Herrold works with schools in nine northern Indiana counties and has helped them calculate the nutrition data for their menus and find healthier alternatives to some products on the menu.
When the regulations went into effect last fall, schools struggled to make their menus fit into the new rules, Herrold said.
“It has to do with giving the industry enough time to develop products with whole grain, less sodium, and that meet requirements for meat and grains,” she said. “Going in to next (school) year there will be a lot more available and it will help a lot.”
By the 2014-15 school year, all of the grain products served in schools will have to be “whole-grain rich,” Herrold said. This means the schools will need to find chicken nuggets with whole-grain breading, whole-grain noodles and even whole-grain crackers and cookies.
“A lot of school make their own cookies,” Herrold said. “They’re using things like white whole-wheat flour. The taste doesn’t change, but you’re increasing the nutritional value of even a cookie.”