National health campaign leads to school lunch changes

By Paul Downer
Community Editor

A nationwide effort to improve the health of school children is resulting in some changes for lunches at Central Schools this year.

New regulations for school lunches from the USDA, the first significant changes in 15 years, are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act approved by congress and supported by Michelle Obama as part of the “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

For local students, the primary change is increased emphasis on fruits and vegetables in their meals. The new regulation requires that each student takes at least half a cup of a fruit and/or vegetable as part of their meal.

“Our company has been providing fresh fruits and vegetables and scratch cooking for many, many years. That part of our program isn’t going to change. Just the fact that the kids have to have a fruit or vegetable on that tray is the biggest change this year, because it wasn’t required in the past,” said Cindy Ann Lambright of Taher, Inc., food service director and chef for Central Schools.

“That’s going to be our biggest challenge right now, especially at the middle school and high school levels. If those kids don’t want to take that squash or that fruit, they’re just not going to take it. In the past they could take a cheeseburger or piece of pizza and a carton of milk and that was a regular lunch. As long as they had three out of the five components on there, [it was OK]. Now, one of those components has to be a half a cup of fruits or vegetables. So now if they come through and they have even a quarter cup, they have to go back.”

The requirement will be enforced by food service personnel, and Lambright said a particular challenge will be students who qualify for the free/reduced meal program. If those students do not take the mandated fruits and vegetables, they will be required to pay ala carte prices. To avoid that circumstance, Lambright emphasized the need to get the word out about the changes.

“Now we might have parents calling us and saying, ‘Why do I have this bill when we have free meals?’ Well, it’s because your child is not taking that half cup requirement. With these new regulations, they can take up to a cup of these fruits and vegetables. Their trays can be pretty full if they take everything allowed to them.”
In addition to the requirement to take fruit, the new regulations also specify particular fruits and vegetables to be served.

“Now we’re required to put out certain varieties every week. In the past we never had to do that. We offered those items, but now they’re getting a little bit more involved. Now we don’t just have guidelines, we also have to start serving particular fruits and vegetables. Now all of our menus have to go to the state to get certified,” said Lambright. “It’s just one more set of hoops that we have to jump through.”

While the new regulations might seem overly specific, Lambright said the intention is good and the result should be positive. Taher has stayed “on the cutting edge of nutrition trends,” she said, adding that other than the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable, the Central food service won’t have to change much about the way it operates. One requirement is to eliminate the use of trans fats, for example, a step Taher already took back in 2007.

“These are all very positive changes. The average student might not see it as a positive change right now, but I think as they go on they’re going to realize this is all [beneficial],” said Lambright.

Regular student prices for school meals this year are 80 cents for breakfast and $2.10 for lunch.

More information on the changes will be presented to students and parents at the district’s open house on Wednesday, Aug. 29.