While detailing the changes in the school lunch program, mandated by the federal government, at Monday's Crookston School Board meeting, Food Services Director Ann Riedlinger urged board members to visit any one of the three public schools to see the changes in action for themselves.
"Watch the kids go through the lunch lines and see the variety of foods being offered, and all the colors and how good it all looks," said Riedlinger, who was asked to bring the board up to speed in the wake of complaints from parents and students about the changes in the lunch menu. "Then after they go and eat, go stand by the garbage and see how much goes into the garbage. They're not eating it, and that's why they're hungry."
Hungry students, especially student-athletes at the end of the school day, were one of the specific concerns voiced by some parents to board member Robin Brekken, who relayed them to the board at a previous meeting.
Riedlinger said concerns voiced by school districts nationwide might result in a relaxing of some of the mandates, or at least a slow-down in their implementation next year and beyond. But, she added, the desire to curb childhood obesity in the nation is not going to wane, so everyone's going to have to get used to school lunch menus that include more fruits and vegetables, less starches and fat, and fewer "empty" calories.
"We've been told that this is going to be a 10-year process, getting people to eat differently," she said. "This year is probably the toughest adjustment for the kids, and for us, too, with our costs going up from providing all these fruits and vegetables."
If students, athletes or otherwise, are hungry after they've eaten their lunch, Riedlinger stressed, they are free to purchase additional food from the regular food line or from the ala cart or deli lines, and that purchased food, some of which is not as healthy as the food on the official lunch menu, won't count against the district in the eyes of the USDA because the student is paying extra for it. Extra helpings in the regular lunch line used to be allowed, free of charge, she said, but that's no longer the case.
The packet of information put together by Riedlinger for the board illustrates just how complex the federal school lunch program is. There are daily requirements for not just fruits and vegetables, grains and meats – requirements that differ depending on the age of the student – but specific daily/weekly minimums are required for the type and color of fruits and vegetables, and half of the grains must be whole-grain. In order to qualify for a federally-reimbursable meal, half of a student's tray must be taken up by fruit and/or vegetable portions.
As for daily caloric requirements, younger students must have a meal containing 550 to 650, all the way up to high school students who need 750 to 800 calories in their meals. Calories from condiments like ketchup or ranch dressing are exempt this year, Riedlinger said, but she's been told that might change next year, meaning food service staff would have to pre-portion condiments. "Can you imagine that?" she said. "It's hard to keep all of this in balance."
Saturated fat must make up less than 10 percent of the total calories in a meal, and trans-fats are a no-no across the board. Next year, daily sodium requirements will be 640 milligrams or less for the youngest kids, on up to 740 milligrams or less for high school students. "I don't know how we're going to meet the sodium guidelines," she said.
When the USDA comes out to check on things, Riedlinger said staff, using templates, must show a complete production record in the kitchen that shows what was prepared that day and what was left over. "Somehow they're able to tell us if we're meeting the requirements or not," she said. Before, specific food labels simply had to show that they "met code," but now detailed, complete nutrition guidelines on the label are required, she added.
Even though she thinks the brakes could potentially be put on some of the new requirements, some things could become more stringent, Riedlinger told the board. For instance, this year, the breading on chicken nuggets and chicken patties doesn't count toward the district's daily bread/starch/grain limit, but next year the breading likely will be counted. "So a student might get some nuggets, but no bread or no bun because we're at the limit," she said.
Saying she's not surprised and indicating that she thinks numbers will go up as students and families adjust to the changes, Riedlinger said the numbers of students eating hot lunch at the three local public schools are down across the board. At CHS, 55 percent are heating hot lunch. At Highland School, the percentage is 79. At Washington School, the percentage of students eating hot lunch is in the low 70s.
The salad bar at the high school was shut down Monday after only three students utilized it, Riedlinger said, adding that the staff will try to add some salad options to the regular lunch line. At Highland School, she said, spinach salad was introduced last week, and 56 students out of almost 400 tried it. "I stood in line and asked why they didn't like the spinach, and a bunch of them said they didn't want to eat leaves," Riedlinger recalled.
Brekken said since the concerns about the school lunch changes went public, he's had school staff tell him that if students ate all the food available to them each day "there is no possible way they'd be hungry." He said hungry kids were his biggest concern, which appeared to be allayed by the information provided by Riedlinger on Monday, who reported that students are receiving the same amount of calories as last year, only the calories are coming from healthier foods, and that students in their lunch receive around 1/3 of their daily nutrient requirement, also the same as last year.
"I'd like to commend you, because this really looks like a hornet's nest," Brekken said. "I hope the facts you've provided put some of these issues to rest. There's enough food there; if kids choose not to eat it, that's a personal choice."