Henrietta Post
  • New rules in the lunchroom at schools throughout NY

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    • By the numbers
      63 percent of NY districts with salad or produce bars
      69 percent offer pre-packaged salads
      52 percent serve locally sourced fruits and vegetables
      48 percent increase sinc...
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      By the numbers

      63 percent of NY districts with salad or produce bars

      69 percent offer pre-packaged salads

      52 percent serve locally sourced fruits and vegetables

      48 percent increase since 2011 in locally sourced produce in school

      SOURCE: School Nutrition Association
  • Back in the day, school bake sales paid for field trips, ice cream rewarded homework and vending machines sold big bottles of milk and sports drinks.
    But wait — it wasn’t that long ago. In fact, they were offered up until this school year, and considered healthier choices than fare pre-1987, when kids could buy candy and soda at school. New school food rules kick in this school year, and kids and parents will notice differences in menu choices and what can be sold during school.
    How these changes will go over is yet to be determined.
    What’s in, what’s out
    Determining what products, combination of foods, recipes and menu plans fit the bill for new federal regulations has kept school food managers busier than ever in recent months. Some obviously questionable food choices for health-conscious eaters, such as sweetened applesauce (due to the sugar), nachos (due to fat) and a slew of processed foods (due to salt), are off the list.
    “There are gray areas here,” said Todd Fowler, food service director for the Bloomfield and Canandaigua school districts, as he worked on menu planning and sorting through the regulations in August.
    Requirements differ for snacks versus meals, and there are variances  within categories of foods. Baked goods are out for the most part, but there is a whole-grain cookie that makes the cut, Fowler said. As far as meals go, you can only serve a grain-based dessert once a week at a meal — but if a dessert is sold á la carte, it falls under the requirements for snacks and should be OK, he said.
    Some foods that seem on the surface like they would be OK, such as packaged peanut-butter crackers, are not — in their case, due to too much sodium. Selling 16-ounce bottles of milk is also not permitted, because it fails to meet standards for new nutritional guidelines that track fat, sodium and sugar levels, among other components. Soda is allowed back in school, as long as it is artificially sweetened rather than containing sugar.
    “The biggest challenge is finding acceptable products, getting information on those products, and their availability,” said Janet Elman, director of food service for the Victor school district. Like Fowler, Elman has been in the business for years. Finding what kids like is always a challenge, and the advent of new standards means they can't necessarily rely on what has been popular in the past, Elman said.
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made significant changes to meals and snacks sold in schools under the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010. “For many kids, the meals they get at school may be the only nutritious meals they receive all day,” the USDA stated in a release about the legislation. “When children receive proper nutrition, they are not only healthier, but they also have better school attendance and perform better academically.”
    Page 2 of 4 - Meeting the challenge
    Last spring, Naples Central School did a survey about foods for students through a focus group addressing the new standards. In tracking the most popular meals — the meals that sold the most — pizza was the top choice with chicken tenders and nachos coming in second and third.
    To meet the new standards and also appeal to students, the school this year will have several new offerings such as turkey burgers and twice-baked sweet potatoes, Naples Superintendent Matt Frahm said. Last school year, the district tried sweet and sour chicken. “It went over fairly well,” said Frahm — in terms of overall popularity, he said, it was “middle of the road.” Quiche was also tried, and did not fare well enough to offer again this year, he said.
    “This is a balancing act,” said Frahm.
    Fowler was recognized in 2010 for his promotion of child nutrition through the Farm to School program. At an event that year showcasing Farm to School at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, Fowler joined other local food service directors and health educators in demonstrating creative ways to incorporate more vegetable dishes into schools. Dishes ranging from black-bean burgers to bulgur wheat salad and fruit combos were made and tasted at the promotion.
    That initiative — begun several years ago to incorporate more plant-based dishes into schools — has taken a hit with the new standards, he said.
    While the philosophies behind the USDA rules and the Farm to School program are largely the same, Fowler said, the complexity and paperwork involved in implementing the federal rules are taking away from much of what was already gained through Farm to School. For example, Fowler said he had been making fresh fruit salads that were popular with students. Now, under new rules, he must serve whole pieces of fruit. That costs more money and the fruit often ends up in the garbage because kids aren’t eating it, he said.
    Dorrie Dunham, director of food service for the Manchester-Shortsville school district, said navigating the new standards is, for now, taking away from time that she would rather spend being creative as the Farm to School program highlighted. Dunham said she would like to be afforded the flexibility to occasionally serve all-time favorites while also moving to more nutritional options.
    “Everyone likes a nice deli sandwich on whole grain bread and an ice cream cone,” she said.
    Sweet or sour?
    According to the School Nutrition Association, in its nutrition report for 2014, schools are expanding creative menu options and ramping up nutrition education programs. Still, many districts struggle with decreased student lunch participation at all grade levels.
    USDA data shows that under the new standards lunch participation is down in 49 states, with more than 1 million fewer students choosing school lunch each day. In New York state, participation has decreased by 102,279 students per day since fiscal year 2010.
    Page 3 of 4 - “The decline in student lunch participation is a big concern for school nutrition professionals, charged with preparing a healthy, well-balanced meal with less money than most adults pay for their morning latte,” said Debbi Beauvais, a past SNA president.
    “As students head back to school, we hope more parents will see all the healthy choices available in the cafeteria and encourage their students to enjoy school meals. We are also looking to USDA or Congress to provide some flexibility under federal regulations to help schools make healthy school meals the popular choice with students,” Beauvais said.
    Victor’s Elman said that in 2012, when the first wave of federal changes kicked in, a lot of negative publicity came with it, which she thinks had a lot to do with a drop in the number of students buying lunches. She experienced the drop in Victor, she said, but since 2012 she has seen an uptick back to normal.
    “It is turning around,” said Elman. “I saw a big increase last year. With the momentum returning for interest in school foods, it is a positive step. We will all get used to it.”
    The bottom line
    Fowler said scrapping the Snapple machine from Bloomfield, per the new rules, did a number on his budget. The Snapple flavored iced teas were wildly popular, and the single Snapple machine made $10,000 annually. He tried other beverage options that meet standards but they didn’t fly, he said: “When you lose a cash cow, that is not very good.”
    School nutrition programs are hurting financially all across the state, said Fowler, who is a past and incoming legislative chairman for the New York School Nutrition Association. More than 75 percent of districts statewide have their nutrition programs in the red, he said.
    Jaylin Kelly, a high school student who just moved to the Bloomfield district from Avon, said she thinks a lot of students will choose to bring their own lunch, at least more often than not, if they don’t see enough of the foods they like and foods they are used to. Sometimes whole-grain bread just isn’t appealing, she said.
    On school fundraisers, questions remain about exactly what will be allowed. As of July 1, all fundraisers during school hours must meet USDA standards.
    Tammy Brace, a secretary for Naples Central School and a mother of two children in the district, is active in the Naples School Association. The organization had held three or four bake sales a year that raised money for school field trips. The sales held during school hours were popular and one sale would raise between $200 and $300, Brace said.
    The bake sales included fruits, vegetables, cheese and crackers and similar snacks as well as the traditional brownies and cookies, she said: “It was a nice treat for the kids.”
    Page 4 of 4 - “We will do our best to raise money in other ways,” said Brace. That will probably include holding the sales at school outside of regular hours, such as at concerts and other evening events.
    The icing on the cake
    Rebecca Pezzimenti, who lives in Bloomfield, is a mom and elementary art teacher at Honeoye Central School. She also heads the wellness committee at Honeoye. On a recent wellness day at the school in which healthy food choices were rolled out for elementary-age kids, response was positive, she said.
    “The kids were so excited with the presentation of it,” Pezzimenti said, adding that districts need financial backing to help them meet the new demands. She said it's good to have the schools offering a larger variety of healthy foods that some kids might not get at home.
    Her son, Dominic, who attends elementary school in Bloomfield, said he likes the salads Fowler makes.
    “And the pizza,” he added. “I get pizza — whole-grain.”