The federal government relaxed rules aimed at healthier school meals, but most districts are sticking with the stricter rules and still managing to serve food kids will eat.
Georgia is in sync with the rest of the country. From Gwinnett County, the largest school district in the state, to smaller school systems such as Barrow County with 14,300 students eating lunch daily, nutrition directors are finding ways to satisfy palates as well as dietary instructions.
“We found ways to provide meals that are good for students and taste good,” said Karen Hallford, director of Gwinnett County’s school nutrition program. “We utilize the Farm-to-School program for fresh fruits and and vegetables and much of our menu remains whole-grain rich.”
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According to a survey of more than 800 districts by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, whole grains will remain a staple on school lunch trays across the country this fall.
Higher amounts of whole grains, lower sodium and lower fat were parts of the nutrition guidelines for school lunches that were relaxed last year.
Yet the SNA’s 2019 Trends Report indicates over 90% of districts will exceed the reduced federal whole grain requirements this school year, with most reporting that about three-quarters or more of the grains offered will be whole grain-rich. Students will continue to choose from options like whole grain lasagna, subs, and scratch-made whole grain muffins and warm cherry crisp.
Hallford pointed out that chicken nuggets and patties have whole grain breading, muffins and cereals meet whole grain standards and Gwinnett cafeterias serve brown rice only.
Since 2014, schools had been required to serve only whole grain breads, rice and pasta, the idea being that whole grains would be more nutritious, help cultivate healthy habits and help reverse growing obesity rates.
But schools and students complained about gritty mac-and-cheese and cardboard-tasting pizza crusts. In an effort to make sure kids were eating the food prepared for them, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed schools to apply for waivers and serve some dishes that didn’t fall within standards.
Most waivers were for foods that were culturally and sometimes geographically specific, such as biscuits in the South and flour tortillas in Latin cultures. Others, according to a report from The Associated Press, included beignets, cinnamon rolls, corn dogs, sugar cookies and Pop Tarts.
With just about every district requesting a waiver for something, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in December that USDA was going back to its old rule and cutting the requirement for whole grains in half.
Not everyone was pleased with the rollback. In April, six states (New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont) and the District of Columbia sued the Department of Agriculture, accusing it of weakening nutritional standards. The nonnprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest is also suing over the rollback. The American Heart Association is calling on school districts to stick to the previous standards, which also included stricter rules on salt and milk.
SNA had advocated for the change as more than 80% of districts surveyed identified at least one barrier to increasing whole grain options. Student acceptance ranked as the top challenge.
Now, however, almost all districts are working to increase student acceptance of whole grains by tactics including taste tests and the use of white wheat for a lighter, softer texture. Nearly 85% of districts offer customizable menu options such as made-to-order salads, Asian entrée bars, build-your-own açaí bowls and flavor stations that allow students to add a variety of low- or no-sodium seasonings or sauces to their meals.
“School nutrition professionals work constantly to improve the nutrition and quality of school meals, while applying on-trend menu concepts to keep these healthy meals fresh and appealing to students,” said SNA President Gay Anderson. “Despite limited funding, strict regulatory requirements and notoriously fickle student tastes, school nutrition programs ensure nearly 30 million students are nourished and ready to learn each school day.”
Pamela LeFrois, director of school nutrition for Barrow County Schools, said she’s pretty much embraced the guidelines for whole grains, but agrees some foods don’t fit the formula.
“This is Georgia, I’d wager nobody’s mama makes biscuits with whole wheat flour,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t serve my students something I wouldn’t serve my own kids.”
In the school food service business for 28 years, LeFrois said being in charge of a medium-sized system is a good spot.
“I have my chicken products made-to-order,” she said. “It’s whole muscle, meaning it’s not that chopped and formed stuff you might find at a fast-food restaurant.”
LeFrois said giving students options is how her staff is able to see more clean plates.
“There are kids who will eat pizza every day or a chicken sandwich every day, so it’s on the menu every day.”
For those with a more adventurous palate, both schools add non-traditional offerings such as hummus in Barrow and in Gwinnett, lemongrass Thai bowl or cereal milk pudding.
Gwinnett has already seen student acceptance of healthier menu items. Here are some data from August.
15,852 — chopped salads served from a new recipe
23,199 — pounds of locally-grown watermelon
26,702 — gourmet burgers (served on whole grain-rich buns)
360,145 — whole grain-rich cereal bowl packs
1,017,373 — breakfasts served
2,186,628 — lunches served
Source: Gwinnett County Public Schools
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC