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School lunches to get healthier

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Exciting changes are afoot in school cafeterias this fall.

With the United States Department of Agriculture’s updated nutrition requirements for the National School Meal Program, students will find healthier choices at lunchtime.

“New nutrition standards for school meals are great news for our kids because they support our school nutrition team’s efforts to create healthier meals,” comments Linda Hoel, food service director for Northshore School District. “We’ve already had salad bars in all of our elementary schools, but now we’re going to have them in the secondary buildings, too.

“And, there’s going to be more variety when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, many which will be locally sourced. We’ll be highlighting dark green, vibrant red and orange veggies and legumes or beans.”

Hoel continues to explain that additional whole grain rich products will be available, including breads, pastas, rice and tortillas. Sodium and saturated fat will be reduced and all meals will contain zero grams of trans fats. In regards to beverages, students will be able to select from plain low-fat or fat-free milk or flavored fat-free milk, as well as 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices. One of the most significant changes is the requirement that students take at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable, which translates to a minimum of a half a cup of either, a combo of the two or a half cup 100 percent juice.

According to Hoel, the cashiers will be responsible for ensuring that these allotments are met. Another major difference is in meal size. “This will vary to meet calorie needs based on grade levels,” explains Hoel. “For the elementary kids, the minimum to maximum calorie range will be 550 to 650; junior high is going to be 700 to 750 and high school will be 750 to 850.” The changes, which are based on the USDA’s 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans, came about after a select group of health professionals was asked by the USDA to evaluate the status and quality of the school meal programs.

“The requirements actually came out in January,” says Hoel, “with the stipulation that schools need to begin adhering to them in September. Part of the reason for the delay has to do with the availability of some of the food items that have had to be reformulated to meet these regulations, such as the whole grain products.”

Hoel doesn’t expect there will be much resistance from students to the changes, as the district has been on a “healthy track” for a while.

“We’ve already been doing a lot of things in regards to making our meals healthier,” she adds. “Most students won’t notice that much of a difference, especially in the elementary schools. At the secondary level, the change in portion size might be evident, but it will be more appropriate for the age level. We’ve always been meeting a minimum, but now they’ll be a maximum when it comes to calories.”

Hoel is hopeful that the updated regulations will be helpful towards combating childhood obesity. She says, “We will be contributing our part, but everyone knows that the other side of the coin is physical activity, and what happens at home with regards to food.” Hoel notes that about 58 percent of students in Northshore buy lunch or are on the reduced meal program.

She emphasizes that despite the new requirements, meal costs will remain the same as last year: $2.75 for elementary students and $3 for junior high and high schoolers.

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