The United States Department of Agriculture approved new guidelines for healthier, more nutritious school lunches on Jan. 25, revising a system that had not been updated in over 15 years.
The changes are part of a revision to the school meal guidelines, which are set by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new rules are based on the outcome from recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and designed to fit with the 2010 USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines, according to Dan Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former secretary of the USDA.
“These new rules will ensure that students are offered fruits, vegetables and more whole grains, along with low or no-fat dairy products, on a daily basis,” Glickman said in a released statement. “These foods are cornerstones of a healthy diet, and schools are one of several important environments that shape kids’ eating habits.”
Increased funding is also included in the legislation. Schools will receive six cents more for each meal that they make, which is considered by the USDA to be the first real increase in 30 years.
Also, for the first time ever, the new rules create the ability to manage and regulate standards regarding what snacks and drinks are sold in vending machines, allowing for foods that help create a healthy diet.
The Shawnee Mission School District has already been working to make food served at school more nutritious by adjusting portion sizes and using healthier recipes, but the new guidelines are going to push for even further improvements.
The new changes will start to be enacted this fall, implemented over a period of three years. According to Nancy Coughenour, manager of SMSD food services, once the district learns more about the new national protocol, cafeterias will begin to adapt.
“We are still in the process of reviewing the new guidelines and asking questions of the state,” Coughenour said. “Our next step will be to review the menus to ensure we are within the new guidelines.”
One of the ways that the SMSD has tried to improve student options is by moving to more wholesome foods.
“We continue to switch to more whole grain items as they become available,” Coughenour said. “Currently all pasta, rice, dinner rolls, hamburger buns, hot dog buns and some entrées are whole grains. We also continue to modify our recipes to reduce the sodium.”
Although the district has been working to make a difference in the cafeteria, the new guidelines from the USDA are going to push things even further by requiring schools to serve more vegetables, non-fat drinks and whole grain bread products. According to Glickman, these guidelines are an important step in creating standards of healthier lunches.
At East, 70 out of 141 students surveyed believe that the meals served in the cafeteria are currently not healthy. Additionally, 64 percent of students bring their own lunches from home at least three times a week.
Senior Megan Metz chooses not to eat from the school cafeteria because she believes that she can make better, healthier choices by preparing her own food and going home for lunch every day.
“As soon as I was given the option of going out to lunch, I decided I was never going to eat in the cafeteria again,” Metz said. “I have always been concerned about my health and the choices I make. Currently, I am eating gluten-free — because roughly 98 percent of all wheat is processed, even whole wheat — due to the advice from a trainer I trust.”
Metz, who hasn’t had soda in two years, has grown up eating foods such as flank steak, wild rice, brussel sprouts and quinoa, a type of gluten-free wheat. Accustomed to eating healthy foods, Metz says that she finds the meals in the cafeteria “quite different.”
“School lunches are more geared towards teenagers and, although they try to be healthy, fail miserably,” Metz said. “I refuse to eat anything from the school cafeteria; some past swim coaches have told me not to eat anything there.”
However, Metz does think that even more changes could be made to further improve the quality and nutrition of cafeteria meals. For example, she says that fresh ingredients could be brought in and the unhealthiest options could be eliminated. Also, sauces could be made with less sugar and no preservatives in order to improve their freshness and taste.
“It all comes down to money — and good, healthy food is always more costly,” Metz said. “However, I think a few small changes could be made that could potentially improve the quality of the school food. This isn’t a problem with just Shawnee Mission East, this is a problem all over the United States.”
Making healthy choices at school is ultimately up to the student, Coughenour explains. Often it is the little things that can influence a student’s well-being.
“Try to make small changes. Every change is a positive step toward making healthier choices,” Coughenour said. “Keep in mind moderation. If you want a cookie – then have one cookie but not three or four cookies.”
Sophomore Rob Simpson, who eats lunches from the cafeteria out of convenience, believes that previous changes made by the school haven’t made much of an effect.
“This year [the price of the pop tarts] decreased a little bit, but you get half the portion; or the cookies, you get two instead of three,” Simpson said. “On one hand it sort of helps with healthiness, but on the other it just kind of makes you spend more to get the same amount,”
During football season, Simpson says that he solves the portion problem by going back for seconds or thirds. But according to the new national guidelines, the focus is on the quality of the items being served, not so much the portion size.
A sample menu from the USDA shows that instead of serving a meal consisting of pizza, tater tots and canned pineapple, the school would serve whole wheat pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes and apple sauce.
Next year, the SMSD is planning on introducing new cafeteria items to reflect the changes. A chicken wrap is an item which has already been tested and was well received at SM South and will be put on the menu across the district this fall.
According to Glickman, these new revisions are steering schools down the right path.
“A number of schools have already shown that menus can be updated in ways that provide tasty and healthy offerings that appeal to kids of all ages,” Glickman said. “We all have a part to play in improving the health of our nation’s children. The USDA’s new standards are an important step in the right direction.”