As kids head back to school next week they’ll see more than just new books and teachers in their classrooms. For the first time, they’ll be seeing healthier hot lunches.
Under rules that take affect this year in federally-subsidized public school lunch programs, the federal government is for the first time imposing calorie and sodium limits on school lunch offerings and requiring schools to offer students more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The new rules, established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, represent the first changes in public school lunch programs in 15 years. The calorie and sodium limits imposed under the new guidelines are based on a student’s age.
The changes are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and are part of an overall effort to make federally subsidized school hot lunches healthier for kids and help reduce a growing obesity problem in the country.
The new requirements include:
- Age-appropriate calorie limits and portion sizes;
- Larger servings of vegetables and fruits (students must take at least one serving of produce with their school lunch)
- A wider variety of vegetables, including dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes
- Fat-free or 1 percent milk (flavored milk must be fat-free)
- Reduced sodium content
- Items gone from the menu: Peanut butter (has too much saturated fat), turkey dogs (have too much sodium), and all desserts including Jello.
While this may sound like a polished plan, Shelton member Mark Holden, who chairs the Cafeteria & Transportation Committee, said he could easily see it becoming a "headache" for both school staff and students' parents. One reason is that parents will be charged more if their child does not take what now constitutes a balanced meal.
"If a kid doesn’t take the apple or the veggies or whatever, mom and dad instead of getting charged the normal meal price will be charged a la cart prices. I think it works out that it’s about 80 cents a day less expensive to take a full meal," Holden said.
Another change within the Shelton public school system parents may not be aware of is that if they do not provide a lunch or lunch money, staff members are obligated to report child abuse. This new policy is being put in place to curb a problem that had cropped up last school year.
"One parent in one school used to qualify for free/reduced lunch but then didn’t anymore. When her kid kept getting free lunch, she told her friends and lots of kids stopped paying for lunch at that school, and if they don’t pay it comes out of the school’s budget--not just for lunches but for textbooks and whatever is needed," Holden said. "But if people are genuinely in financial distress, we’re not looking to penalize them. There are programs in place and we will help parents with filling out the necessary paperwork to get those benefits."
To make sure "nobody is shocked" by these new changes, the BOE plans to send mailings to every household this week, send a note home with each student on the first day of school, and make phone calls during the first few weeks of the school year.
"On one hand it’s a wonderful thing for kids to get a balanced meal. I'm sure this act was well-intentioned but the thing is it was put together by people who aren’t dealing with the real world reality of things," Holden said.
So what happens if a kid takes their fruits and veggies because they have to, only to throw them away because he or she doesn't actually want to eat them?
"It is a waste and that is one of the things we discussed at length," Holden said. He had initially suggested putting donation bins in each cafeteria so students could donate their unwanted food, but once it is served it cannot be given away.
"What we may be able to do is compost the leftovers, which is a far cry from feeding the helpless," Holden said. "We teach kids not to waste food but here we’re giving them a program that pays to waste food if they don’t want it."