Federal food standards challenge, benefit schools
If you can't stand the new nutrition standards for all food served in Ohio schools, stay out of the kitchen.
The Delaware City School District's food service department has begun to implement new standards released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 12.
Schools were required to implement the changes at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.
Sally Rathje, the district's director of food service, said some of the changes will take time for students to accept.
"Implementing the changes will be hard on students and staff, due to old habits that will need to be broken," she said. "We, as a district and a nation, will need to learn new habits to help us feel the new norm."
A rule included in the new guidelines for healthy school meals states a student must take at least a half-cup of fruits or vegetables.
"Many students do not want to take any of the many choices offered daily for fruits and vegetables," Rathje said. "They can even choose a juice and some students refuse even that."
There now are maximum calorie and sodium limits for each meal, to be phased in over the next 10 years. In addition, portion sizes will be regulated and are age-specific.
"Sodium restrictions can affect the taste and so we work with good-tasting products that are low in sodium," Rathje said. "Finding those products that fit all criteria is the challenge."
Half the grains served must be whole grain, and by the 2013-14 school year, they all must be whole grain.
Although students still have some flexibility in what they can purchase, the new standards will reduce the number of choices students can make.
"The government is taking away the ability for the consumer to make bad choices," Rathje said. "Our students will only have the ability to make choices from selected healthy choices, not high-fat and high-sodium choices."
The district will be challenged to make the improvements within a shrinking budget and increased enrollment, she said.
"Healthy food costs more, which means our school food service program will have to find ways to meet the standards while staying within our budget," Rathje said.
The government will compensate for some of the increased costs via a 6-percent refund per reimbursable meal, she said.
The food service department has introduced a website designed to help parents understand the new changes, read nutrition information, make online payments and receive monthly newsletters and menus.
In two months, the website will have a new interactive display which will enable parents to see all the nutrition information for each meal.
Rathje said even though the changes present hurdles for the staff and students, she believes they will be helpful in the long term.
"I believe it will be a good thing to help kids learn the new norm," she said. "Our students are already eating more healthy, as seen by what they are eating on their school lunch trays."