June 20, 2017

As the feds change nutrition standards, local schools up their game

Nathan Fiske
Students at North High School in Worcester choose lunches on June 8.
While adult obesity rates have grown steadily, rates among Massachusetts high school students haven't changed much over the last dozen years.

Any parent can tell you how hard it is to put good, healthy food on a child's plate and get them to actually eat it. Now imagine feeding thousands of kids, from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, each with their own quirky tastes, for just $3 a meal.

That's Donna Lombardi's job. She's the director of nutrition for the Worcester Public Schools, which have been working for years to replace sugar-, salt- and preservative-laden packaged foods with healthier, tastier options.

"We've got two very experienced chefs on staff," Lombardi said. "We're making taco meat from scratch. We're making corn salad using unprocessed commodities from the USDA [US Department of Agriculture]. We're creating menu items [using] fresh vegetables and fruits that are grown in the region."

Lombardi said one chef works with the culinary staff at each school in the district, helping them learn to make fresh, nutritious food. The other runs a "manufacturing kitchen," creating alternatives to mass-marketed products.

Regulation rollback

Starting in 2012, in an initiative headed by First Lady Michelle Obama, the USDA began phasing in new rules designed to improve meals served at public schools. Schools were required to use whole-grain baked goods and pastas, limit salt, serve multiple kinds of fruits and vegetables, and abide by minimum and maximum calorie limits for each meal.

But this May, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a rollback of a few aspects of the rules. The limit on sodium will now stay at its current level, rather than dropping this year as previously planned. Schools are allowed to serve 1-percent fat milk, rather than only skim milk. And the Department will continue to issue waivers allowing districts to skip whole grain requirements.

The idea of relaxing nutrition standards troubles many people because there are a number of growing health problems that are linked to poor eating habits that begin in childhood. In Worcester County, 27 percent of adults were considered obese as of 2013, compared with 24 percent statewide. When it comes to children, 2015 data show that 11 percent of kids in the state are obese.

Juliana Cohen, who teaches health and nutrition at Merrimack College and Harvard University, said that, by and large, requiring better nutrition in schools has been a success.

"Our research, and the research of others, found that students are eating it," she said. "There were concerns that, if you required students to take a fruit or vegetable, would they just throw it out? Once it was on their plate they were more likely to eat it."

Cohen said Massachusetts was ahead of the curve on improving school nutrition through the Smart Snacks program that demanded a la carte items meet certain standards. Previously, many students had skipped school lunch and opted for vending machine junk food instead. Schools were worried that eliminating appealing, unhealthy options would cause financial problems for their food programs, but when Cohen studied the issue, that turned out not to be the case.

"There was an initial drop," she said. "Then by the second year, it was completely cost-neutral because we found an increase in school meal participation."

That is, given the choice between healthy snacks and healthy meals, many students chose the meals.

Cohen said she worries the rollback in federal standards will hurt students, who often get more than half their daily calories from breakfasts, lunches, and other food served at school, and who are in the process of forming lifelong eating habits.

Eliminating hardship?

But Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the new policy may not make a major difference.

"The flexibility will allow state agencies to provide exemptions to school districts where buying whole grains for all of their grains is a hardship," she said in an email.

Reis said schools, and the food industry that serves them, have made a lot of progress in recent years developing palatable foods that meet the federal standards. But she said there's been pushback along the way from students who choose to bring bag lunches rather than take the healthier hot lunches.

Janice Watt, president of the Massachusetts School Nutrition Association and school nutrition director at Foxborough Public Schools, said the changes to the federal standards aren't as significant as the media has sometimes suggested.

"They're not radical by any means," she said.

Watt said most Massachusetts school districts probably won't change the kind of milk they serve or drastically reduce their use of whole grain foods.

"I may take the waiver but just for the occasional time I want to serve basmati rice or macaroni and cheese—when you use whole grain pasta it just looks gross," she said. "I think that's how most directors I've spoken to are going to address it."

Watt said the state's school lunches have come a long way from a decade ago, when some schools served French fries as a typical vegetable. Today, the Foxborough schools offer salad and smoothie bars, as well as tower gardens where kids can see the romaine lettuce and herbs that will be part of their lunches grow.

One problem that a lot of school districts have is that parents and community members may have an outdated image of school meals.

"School nutrition programs are notoriously bad at promoting the good that we're doing," Watt said.

She said the Nutrition Association tries to combat that problem by offering nutrition directors "Social Media 101" training and encouraging them to set up parent and grandparent lunches, where the adults can try the food the schools serve.

Sugar: The elephant in the room

Lombardi said she's not too worried about the modest rollbacks in federal standards. What does concern her is a subject that the rules don't deal with.

"The big white elephant in the room that nobody's addressing is the added sugar that is in these menu components," she said, explaining that the Worcester schools are trying to move away from pre-packaged food and produce their own items in-house.

Given the direction the USDA has moved so far on nutrition standards, it may be unlikely to set limits on sugar content any time soon. So it's up to school districts to keep finding innovative ways to make sure the food they serve doesn't just follow the guidelines but is wholesome all the way around.

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