With the new school year underway, students are meeting new friends, settling in to new areas of study and, in nearly all cases, looking at some major changes to their hot lunch trays each day.
As a result of First Lady Michelle Obama and her "Let's Move" campaign, school who participate in the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch programs are now complying with the new "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act," for this school year, after it was signed into law by President Obama in 2010.
The new act focuses on establishing healthier eating habits within children, by transforming the food environment at school. Lunch lines will no longer carry desserts. Cafeteria vending machines no longer stock pop and sugary juice drinks. Milk is now either low fat or non-fat. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307) places the following calorie limits on the students' meals, based on age level: Students in Kindergarten through Fifth Grades are limited to 550-650 calories per meal, while students in Sixth through Eighth Graders are limited to 600-700 calories per meal. High schoolers are limited to 750-850 calories per meal.
The plan, which is designed to cover 10 years, focuses on different elements of school lunch programs each year. For the 2012-13 school year, the goal is to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in the diets of school children.
One change means there is a maximum of 12 bread grains to be served to students in a week. Each slice of bread counts as one serving, so a two-slice sandwich would count as two bread grain servings.
That may not seem significant - Just cut back on a slice or two of bread per week. But it's not just actual bread: cookies and pasta salad count toward bread grains. So do those gooey, homemade cinnamon rolls. But what if a hot lunch contains an entre such as chicken nuggets and those nuggets are usually breaded? Well, there's a grain serving that must be accounted for.
Under the federal regulations, every child, regardless of age level, is required to take a minimum of a half-cup of fruit or vegetable during their meal. Middle and high school students are offered a cup each of fruit and vegetable. They can take both cups if they would like, but they are required to take at least a half-cup.
With a much larger emphasis on vegetables, there is also an added push for children to eat more fruits. Fruits and vegetables used to be in one food category, but are now separated into two under the new guidelines. Vegetables have been divided into five subgroups and the government has mandated schools must offer a certain amount of each subgroup every week, based upon what nutrients each item provides. For instance, legumes, such as the beans and peas category, includes black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans, soy beans, split peas and white beans.
The new initiative also has some other areas of emphasis one might not think of.
Condiments ketchup, mustard, and salad dressings must be fat-free or light dressing, low-sodium ketchups or low-sodium mustard, And, the calories of each condiment must be considered when planning the menu.
Every kid's favorite, chocolate milk even comes under scrutiny. Chocolate milk can only be one-percent fat, or better yet, skim milk.
The use of sodium in school meals will be required to be reduced by 50 percent in the upcoming 10-year period, meaning alternative forms of seasoning will have to be implemented into menus and, of course. No trans-fats are allowable.
From the list of requirements and guidelines, it's obvious that food service directors are going to have even more menu planning in their job descriptions. Couple the new requirements with increasing costs, and the directors will also have to develop their budget magic skills as well, trying to keep from losing money while providing the most nutritious, healthy food possible for the students.
And then there are special situations to consider. Students can get an exemption from the federal nutritional requirements, that is, if they meet certain criteria. Some children have medical conditions that place restrictions on diets allergies to peanuts and lactose intolerance are two common restrictions. In those cases, a student with the need for a special diet must have that diet ordered by a doctor. The diet must then be coordinated with the school nurse and then worked out with the food service department. School districts presented with a valid special dietary requirement for a student are legally bound to meet the dietary request.
And another concern for many food service directors are student athletes, who require higher calorie meals, either for a sport or because a school lunch is the only meal they get in a day. For some students, there may be a seven or eight hour span between that school hot lunch and their evening meal. Many schools try to offer a healthy snack for those students before practice, simple items such as a banana or milk. Protein shakes are also an allowable item, but energy drinks are not recommended in any way, due to the adverse affects on the system through increased amounts of caffeine they contain.