Mastering the New K-12 Meal Regulations

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

School operators share lessons learned and challenges met in the momentous first year of the new USDA meal pattern.

School foodservice directors and staff, stand up and take a bow.

Charged with making groundbreaking changes to the National School Lunch Program, and tackling the job under challenging circumstance, you are helping to make history. You are on the front lines of a sweeping plan to change the eating habits of America’s school children, and in theory, restrain the rising rate of childhood obesity and instill healthier lifestyles for generations to come.

Effective last school year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations set forth by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 changed the amount of fruits, vegetables, grains and other meal components schools are required to serve. Among the changes are that students must take a certain amount of a fruit or vegetable with the meal. Weekly minimum amounts must be offered in five different vegetable subcategories: dark green, red and orange, legumes, starchy vegetables and “other.” At least half of the grain foods offered must be “whole grain-rich” or made with 50% or more whole grain. Lunches also have to meet specific calorie counts for various age levels of students. Complying with all of the new regulations qualifies a school district for an additional six cents of reimbursement.

Advanced preparation

By and large, school districts that had already increased produce and whole-grain servings and eliminated less healthy foods from their menus adjusted more easily to the changes than districts that had made fewer modifications. It helped to be a large district with an ample support staff that included dietetic expertise.

“Our transition [to the new regulations] was not as eventful as many districts because we had been working on the changes over the last four years, anticipating what would be coming,” says Dora Rivas, executive director, food and child nutrition services, at the Dallas Independent School District, which has 219 schools and 157,000 students. 

“About four years ago, we eliminated some pastries and started working with our vendors on products lower in fat and more whole-grain breads and pastas,” Rivas adds. “This year, as we implemented the changes, the students were already used to some of the food items and we experienced minimal pushback.” 

Similarly, preparing in advance helped Hillsborough County Public Schools, in Tampa, Fla., which has about 190,000 students, make a smooth transition, reports Mary Kate Harrison, general manager, food and child nutrition services. “The year went rather well,” Harrison says. 

In fact, Hillsborough County had an increase of 5% in high school lunch participation. Elementary school participation rose by a single point and middle schools stayed the same. 

“We didn’t just introduce butternut squash and spinach casserole and glazed carrots and sweet potatoes all of the sudden last year,” Harrison says. “We have been introducing different colored vegetables for the past five years.”

Growing pains

However, this is not to say that complying with the new meal pattern was free of challenges for anyone.

Many operators complained about the lack of lead time to implement the meal pattern changes, which were released in final form last spring. In addition, the technical nature of the changes left many confused about how to revise their menus. Operators also complained that executing the food under the new regulations cost more in food and labor than the six-cent reimbursement covered and that kitchen staffs were taxed by the skills required. Many operators struggled to decipher the new regulations and get answers to questions from state authorities who helped as best they could but were themselves only learning the regulations. 

“It was the most major change we have had to our meal pattern in 15 years,” says Leah Schmidt, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills C-1 School District, in Kansas City, Mo., and School Nutrition Association president. “It was a lot for us to take on.”

“Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the new regulations is the rate of change and consistency,” says Linda Sceurman, director of nutrition and menu development for dining services contractor Aramark Education, based in Philadelphia. “For example, at the beginning of the year, there were limits on grain and [proteins] and then in December 2013, this was lifted. We have also found it challenging to find whole-grain products that students will eat.”

Taking it to the maximums

Indeed, even operators who prepared in advance were caught off guard by the rule setting weekly maximum amounts of grains and proteins in school lunches, which was not in the proposed regulations. 

The maximums put a damper on some of the most popular salad bar items at Burlington School District, in Vermont. “The selling point for our school meals has always been the abundance of our salad bar,” says Foodservice Director Doug Davis. “Having to limit our protein was challenging because we had to pull cottage cheese and yogurt from the salad bar. We also had to pull whole-grain salads such as couscous and quinoa because they exceeded the grain requirement. So we lost some kids in the first few months who were accustomed to having those vegetarian choices on the salad bar.” 

The USDA’s elimination of the grain and protein maximums midway through the school year came as a relief to directors who had struggled to explain why some popular and familiar foods were menued less frequently and why portions of some items were smaller than usual. 

“Once they changed the grain requirement and protein requirement we were able to serve larger portions and keep our calories under control,” says Jeff Denton, foodservice director at the Ponca City School District, in Oklahoma. “Then our older kids weren’t as hungry. We couldn’t even do a cheeseburger on the high school level. It was a little bitty patty. I don’t know many adults who would want a 2-ounce patty.”

District size matters

To generalize again, smaller districts with limited budgets for travel to conferences and workshops and less technical expertise on staff seem to have been at a disadvantage in coping with the changes. 

“In some of the smaller districts, the person who plans the menu might also cook the meals and drive a school bus before and after school,” Schmidt says. “I am fortunate because I am in a city, I am fairly educated in nutrition, plus I have a registered dietitian on staff.” 

Not all districts are as fortunate as Schmidt’s. “There are many school districts across the nation that do not have any additional resources to put towards the gigantic change we had to adjust to,” says Margie Saidel, vice president of nutrition and sustainability for Chartwells School Dining Services, based in Rye Brook, N.Y. “You can feel for their challenges.”

Chartwells, which serves more than 550 school districts and private schools around the country, has had internal nutrition standards for the past decade “at a level somewhat above USDA standards,” Saidel says.
When the new regulations came out, a team of Chartwells chefs and dietitians helped the schools implement the changes. “They met with every foodservice director to do any modification of menus and recipes in order to meet the new regulations,” Saidel says. “We helped them apply for the additional six-cent reimbursement and all of our districts got it.” 

Consequences of change

Operators also dealt with some unintended consequences of the new USDA regulations, such as a drop in participation, higher food and labor costs, more food waste, negative media perceptions, and student and parent dissatisfaction. 

Participation: Saidel says Chartwell’s K-12 accounts saw about a 3% drop in participation, in line with what many operators around the country underwent. “It has taken some time to turn things around, but we have seen an uptick in [participation],” Saidel says. “Once you lose customers in any type of foodservice establishment, it takes time to get them back.”

Burlington’s Davis says his participation dropped by 6% or 7% in the fall, then started climbing back up. However, he attributes the decline more to a 10% lunch price increase than to changes in the menu. 

“I believe that the new meal pattern had probably less to do with it than the price increase, because over the last 17 or 18 years in Burlington, we have had to raise prices on three occasions [and] we have seen that when you raise your prices you dip by the same percentage,” Davis says. 

Participation dropped at Dallas ISD four years ago when the menus were first revamped with healthier fare. “We probably experienced then what some schools just experienced this past year—that is, we had a 2% drop in our participation,” Rivas says. “But in the last two or three years, we have recovered it. This year the students were already used to some of the food items and we experienced minimal pushback from them.” 

Food costs: The new meal pattern also cost school districts more to execute. For example, Hillsborough County Public Schools spent 41% more on produce last school year, Harrison reports. In Chartwells K-12 accounts, fruit and vegetable purchases more than doubled in the first five months of the school year, Saidel says. 

At Ponca City School District, higher food, labor and trash disposal costs were unintended consequences of the new regulations, Denton reports. 

“The price of fruit just skyrocketed because we’re all doubling our fruit,” Denton says. “We are landlocked in the middle of Oklahoma, and when we get to December, January and February, there is not a lot of fresh fruit available to us other than apples, oranges and bananas that are U.S. grown. We had to use canned fruit, and  now we have more cans than ever before. So we had to increase our budget for trash service.”

Labor costs: Labor costs increased as well because of the greater amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables kitchen staffs had to prep. “You only get a little time to do this, so I had to bring in more labor and rearrange schedules and extend contract hours,” Denton says. “That really cost us more money, too.”

Ironically, the move to more whole grains led Ponca City schools, previously known for scratch baking, to switch to vendor-made whole-grain rolls.

“We couldn’t find a good recipe,” Denton says. “A manufacturer came up with a dough ball that was much, much better than what we could do.”

Public impression and influence: In some places, operators also struggled with a negative public impression of the changes. There were reports of student protests and cafeteria boycotts when familiar foods disappeared from cafeteria lines and were replaced with healthier fare.

“It goes back to what kids are used to seeing,” Hillsborough’s Harrison says. “If you are a district that was serving french fries every day, and kids were eating them every day, when you no longer have french fries, your customers are not going to be happy.” 

Voicing a similar sentiment is Frieda Aughenbaugh, nutrition educator for Metz Culinary Management, a contract foodservice company based in Dallas, Pa., which serves 53 public school accounts. 

“To go from giving students huge servings of french fries, as some districts were still doing, to giving them baked fries and fat-free salad dressings takes some time to get used to,” Aughenbaugh says. “We stopped frying foods and started offering an abundance of fruits and vegetables in our schools a long time ago.”

Aughenbaugh notes that the majority of students in the schools Metz serves accepted the meal pattern changes. 

“Most of our schools didn’t have a huge decrease in participation like some other districts did,” Aughenbaugh says. “We didn’t see the boycotting and negative news articles that [occurred] in some places.”

But at Bristol Tennessee City Schools, Director of School Nutrition Ron Fink says that his seven schools felt a 7% participation drop and $60,000 budget deficit last year, even though he prepared for the new meal pattern, followed the proposed regulations, removed fryers and added healthier foods to his menus. 

Part of the decline in participation was due to a price increase, Fink says, but the major reason was the lack of student and parent support for the new menu pattern. He believes they were influenced by negative media perceptions, such as the video “We are Hungry” that parodied the new school lunch pattern and received more than 1.2 million hits on YouTube. 

“I think the public backlash just killed us,” Fink says.

During the current school year, he is focusing on building participation and turning around the deficit.  

“We will do sampling programs that show PTAs and kids the quality of our food,” Fink says. “We we will also dream up marketing schemes. I’m looking at what corporate restaurants like McDonald’s are doing, not so much with their food, but how they reach out to customers.”

Dealing with public perceptions “was a PR mess for us,” Ponca City’s Denton says. “People said, ‘I hear you are starting to serve healthy meals in school now.’ Well, I’ve been serving healthy meals for 23 years.”

In a positive light

According to Denton, the USDA could have done more to explain the new guidelines to the public and position school foodservice directors in a positive light. “I think the handling of this was poor because it automatically made the assumption that all previous school meals were unhealthy and only now they are getting healthy,” Denton explains. “We have done tons and tons of work on nutritious food and scratch cooking, so to say that is unfair.”

Higher amounts of food waste associated with the increased fruit and vegetable servings were also an issue in some districts. Burlington’s Davis says his schools initially saw more food waste, but it decreased over time. 

“We work with kids to encourage them not to take more than they are going to eat and not to throw things away,” Davis says. “I think that helps.”

Davis says that the longer time it takes students to eat lunches that include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, coupled with the brevity of lunch periods, may have significant bearing on food waste in schools. 

“If we are going to ask kids to eat whole, fresh foods, we have to give them time to eat whole, fresh foods,” Davis says. “Eating a lunch of a chicken patty, french fries and fruit cup will take substantially less time than asking a child to pull a lunch off a salad bar, which in our schools has 15 or 16 items of fresh food.”

“It just takes longer to eat leafy greens than carrot coins or french fries,” Davis adds. “I can’t push 300 kids through in 20 minutes and expect that they are all going to chew and swallow.”

Even with the challenges they face in implementing the changes, school foodservice directors still voice support for the ultimate aim of the new regulations, which is to bring about a lasting improvement in the way students eat.

“In general, the message that we need to get out is that school lunch is not just a feeding program, it is a nutrition education program, too,” Dallas ISD’s Rivas says. “When students go through the line, they are learning about healthier options for a long-term lifestyle.”

“Ten years from now, I think we will see a huge change in the eating habits of kids and their health trends,” Davis continues. “Moving forward, if we get these kids eating good food, when they become the shoppers for their families, they will buy food differently.”