06/07/12 — School menus undergo face-lift

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School menus undergo face-lift

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 7, 2012 1:46 PM

The cost of buying a school lunch is going up, with students and parents seeing healthier food choices on the menu next year.

Wayne County Public Schools is aligning its efforts with the national trend, as first lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year unveiled the "healthy hunger-free kids act."

This is the first time in more than 15 years that such a hard line is being taken to raise standards to make sure quality foods are served to the nearly 32 million youths buying school lunches every day.

Barbara Ward, director of child nutrition with Wayne County Public Schools, said in addition to increased portion sizes and additional options of fruits and vegetables, the district will offer more whole grain-rich foods, only fat-free or low-fat milk, and will reduce calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

"It used to be fruits and vegetables combined," Mrs. Ward said. "Now it's two separate components. Right now, we offer four choices of fruits and vegetables. New requirements will give us more specifications."

The transition will include converting from white bread and buns to whole wheat, while other requirements like fat-free or low-fat milk have been in effect locally for several years. The district has also gradually reduced or removed salt packets from school cafeterias and is in the process of removing or reducing chicken base from canned or frozen vegetable recipes, Mrs. Ward said.

Portion size and calorie limitations will be based on grade level, she said.

Currently, students were served one-half to 3/4 cup of fruits and vegetables combined per day, 1.5 to 2 ounces of meat, one serving of grains and one cup milk a day.

The new recommendation call for grades K-8 meals to contain a half cup to one cup of fruit, 3/4 to one cup vegetable, a one-ounce serving of grain and one ounce of meat or meat alternate, such as cheese, plus one cup of milk. In grades 9-12, the portion sizes are one cup fruit, one cup vegetable, two servings, or two ounces, of grain, one ounce of meat and one cup milk.

There will also be some anticipated challenges with the modifications, she told the board.

Among them, there is the potential increase in food, supplies and labor waste, significant increase in training of school nutrition personnel, reduction of a la carte sales, the need for additional storage space for fruits and vegetables, the possibility that whole grains might not initially be well-received by students, and likelihood of wasted food.

While a growing number of students in the district receive free and reduced lunches -- a federal program, which translates to students being required to take something from each category listed above in order for the school to be reimbursed -- the profit margin for the district remains very lean.

"Our current plate, it costs $2.91 to produce a lunch," Mrs. Ward said.

The federal government currently reimburses the district 28 cents for a paid meal. Coupled with what students pay for school lunch, $2, that brings the amount brought in per meal to $2.08.

The school board last month voted to increase the cost of school lunches for grades K-12 to $2.25, in line with recommendations made to school districts by the state.