With the start of the new school year, many parents learned that there had been significant changes to Milford’s school lunch program, with smaller portion sizes and the requirement that children take, as part of their lunch, a vegetable or fruit and milk. According to Beverly Harp, Child Nutrition Manager at Milford School District, these changes are due to new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The act, signed into law by President Obama on December 13, 2010, went into effect for lunches July 1, 2012, to begin in the 2012-2013 school year. Changes to breakfast regulations go into effect July 1, 2013. Current research indicates that one out of every three children is at risk for weight-related health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Designed to coincide with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, which encourages children to eat healthy and get active, the new regulations mark the most comprehensive changes to school nutrition in over 15 years.
According to Harp, changes to the nutrition program include increased vegetable and fruit portion sizes, especially for grades 9 through 12; only no fat or one percent milk, including flavored versions; and minimum and maximum grain and protein servings each week. In addition, districts must identify the five components of the meal at the beginning of the serving line. Calorie minimums and maximums for three age groups are also defined in the regulation. Age groups include Grades K through five, six through eight and nine through 12.
In order to promote healthy nutrition, Milford School District works to educate the children on healthier options, both at school and at home, using the USDA “My Plate” program, formerly known as “My Pyramid.” The program encourages students to make half their plate fruits and vegetables, make at least half their grains whole and to put food on their plates with more color. Cafeteria staff are experimenting with new recipes in an effort to get students to try new things.
“Yesterday, I was helping out at Banneker, and we were trying a new recipe, Chicken A La King,” Harp explained. “Many of them asked what it was, so I explained it was chicken with some gravy and some really colorful vegetables. I was very happy to see that some of them tried it, and seemed to like it.” Harp also explains that the staff is always trying to fine-tune the menu selection, and in fact will remove an item, replacing it with another version, if the children don’t seem to like it.
The district is also participating in the USDA Farm-to-School Initiative, which promotes purchasing food items from local vendors. Currently, Milford works with a hydroponic farm in Salisbury and with Fifer Orchards in Camden for much of their produce and is currently promoting apples grown at Fifer in the cafeterias.
“With many families struggling financially, we understand that school meals may be the only nutritious meal a student gets each day,” Harp explained. “We know that students cannot learn when they are hungry, and we want to be able to offer them healthy, nutritious meals in our school cafeterias.”
One complaint Harp says she has heard from parents is that students at the high school level, who used to receive a three-ounce portion of protein, now only receive a two-ounce portion under the guidelines. However, students may take more than one serving of an item, as long as they also take one fruit or vegetable and milk. The student must also pay for the additional serving. Harp also explained that due to peanut allergies in the schools, the staff no longer makes their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are available in all schools most days. Instead, they purchase Uncrustables to avoid the potential for an allergic reaction in a child with a severe peanut allergy.
The federal guidelines are rolling out in stages and the next stage will involve lowering the sodium levels in school lunch menu items. Harp believes that the lowered sodium levels will be the biggest problem to address, as salt is necessary for flavor in many foods. She said that students will not eat foods that don’t taste good, so it will be a challenge, not only for the child nutrition staff, but for suppliers who provide many of the canned foods used in school cafeterias. This reduced sodium levels must be implemented by July 1, 2017.