It’s been 15 years, but school lunches across the nation are finally getting a fresh look. The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed new standards this month in an effort to improve nutrition for the 50 million children in public schools.
Despite the groans from children everywhere, the USDA believes the changes are for student’s own good. Some 32 percent of children ages 6 to 19 years are overweight or obese, according to a national nutrition survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among the changes headed to local schools: reduced sodium, more fruits and vegetables, fewer starchy foods (yes, that means French fries), more whole grains, low-fat or nonfat milks and better breakfast with more protein and grains.
Once the regulation is final, schools will be required to meet the new regulations for reimbursement on school meals. Some changes, such as reduced sodium in foods, have a 10-year grace period.
"It's a big change," said Karen Crawford, the district's nutrition coordinator and dietitian. "It's definitely the right thing to do for the kids."
School board member Carole Boyce, of Dacula, agrees, but said the ultimate judges will be the students.
"Intially kids may not be too thrilled with this," she said. "But, with any change after a while you just get used to it."
Healthy Choices in Gwinnett
Gwinnett County Public Schools support the changes and have already been working toward better meals for some time.
"Innovation is something I think we do," said Dr. Robert McClure, chairman of Gwinnett County Public Schools board. "Without any sort of mandate from Washington, we've been concerned about school nutrition."
This year, for example, the school district instituted the Farm-to-School program, which provides healthy food choices using local growers. Every month the school district focuses on one specific produce item. For January, it's cabbage.
In addition, the school district has no fried foods, has upped its fresh fruit and vegetable levels and increased whole grain foods. It has budgeted $85.7 million for school nutrition this year, a slight increase over fiscal year 2010. Produce costs, in particular, have gone up, Crawford said.
"What we do know is that there is definitely a cost associated with serving healthier foods, and we've already seen that," Crawford said. "It's just a balance. We just work really hard to balance it out and find a way to make it work."
With the new changes, school meals will cost more for parents and their children, McClure said.
How much? That is yet to be determined. Currently, lunches cost $1.75 at the elementary level and $2.00 at the middle and high school level. Breakfast is $1.00 for all levels.
Even with expected an increase, McClure said school meals "are still the best bargain in your community" when it comes to feeding children healthy meals.
"You're getting your money's worth," he added.
Boyce said she is also conscious of the cost that it will mean for parents. However, she added, the idea is a good one.
"It's something from an awareness standpoint that we all need to think about," she said of school nutrition.
Concerns Inside Schools
School district statistics show that parents think so, too. Thirty-six percent of the school's 161,000 students participate in the breakfast program. The school lunch program sees an 81 percent participation rate.
Some schools, like Grace Snell Middle School, are above the district average. There some 52 percent of students eat breakfast, and 91 percent eat lunch. The most-popular items are chicken and pizza.
"I think the healthier we can get it, the better it is for everybody," said Dawn Cobb, cafeteria manager at Grace Snell Middle, of the new regulations
The bottom-line, she added, is making sure the children actually eat. Over the summer, Cobb said she worries about her students eating and eating nutritiously.
"I do want them to get their breakfast and their lunch and for them to eat healthy," she said.
Parents like Lisa Anthony, who has a child at Shiloh Elementary in Snellville, say the positive attitude toward nutrition is something that they can appreciate. She would like to see fewer breaded and processed foods, and she would support a policy banning sweets.
"With so much emphasis being placed on childhood obesity, I feel strongly that the school nutritionists must help address the issue." she said. "Children spend the majority of their waking hours at school and are often very influenced by what is practiced within the school walls."
To comment on the proposed standards, click here. Public comment ends April 13. The standards do not need congressional approval.