School Lunch Makeover

For the first time in 15 years, the USDA has made significant changes to school meals in an effort to curb childhood obesity.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Child Nutrition Directors Say New Meal Regulations Will Not Be Hard to Implement at Their Schools

Operators say sodium reduction poses biggest challenge.

“We’re already there” is the most common reaction when talking to school nutrition operators about the new meal pattern regulations.

“Most of what is [in the new meal regs] we’re already doing,” says David Binkle, deputy director of food service for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “In fact, in our district we still have a lot of things that exceed even what the new regulations are. For us there wasn’t a whole lot of impact.”

Participation decline? The district’s foodservice department revamped its menus this school year to incorporate many of the proposed meal regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. There have been several reports that the district’s students were not accepting the new healthier menus and that participation had declined as a result. Binkle disputed published reports that participation has declined because students do not like the department’s healthier menus.

Binkle acknowledged that participation has declined nearly 3% since last year. However, he said the reasons behind that drop are not related to the healthier menus not being liked by students.

“When you look at the reason [for the drop in participation], most of it has nothing to do with the menu,” Binkle says.

One major reason is the district’s enrollment dropped 2.9%. “Clearly when you have fewer students you have less meal participation,” Binkle says.

Another factor that attributed to about 40% of the decline in participation was that 100 schools that were serving free meals to all students under Provision II are no longer qualified under that program. Binkle says that years ago, before Dennis Barrett took over the program, these 100 schools did not keep proper documentation that would allow the program to continue this year.

In another 50 schools, meal periods were eliminated because there wasn’t adequate staffing to supervise students during lunch. Finally, 30 schools moved from a year-round calendar to a traditional calendar. Meal counts for previous years included meals served to those students in year-round programs for months during which traditional schools were not in session. That has also decreased the number of meals served.

“Clearly, there were the changes to the menu,” Binkle says. “From what I see and what I hear now that students are getting used to [the new menus] and they have tasted it, they like it. Any time you make change, and major change like this, that’s an evolution that we have to go through. There’s going to be people now saying the meal is too healthy for the kids and it’s stuff they don’t know. The reality of this is the rest of the country is about to see what we’ve gone through [when they adopt the new meal pattern regulations]. We did this on purpose so that we could really get out ahead of this and start to work through it and adjust. I think the rest of the country is going to see a lot of the same impact [that we’ve seen this year].

“The other thing is the district went even further than what these rules are because the superintendent and the board made the decision to eliminate flavored milk. I was at a school two days ago and I met with the teachers. They said everybody has really embraced the reasons why we are doing this, but what they don’t understand is why the district continues to go further. They think that if the superintendent would just put the chocolate milk back then everything would be fine.”

Binkle says the district has strived to be on the forefront of making school menus healthier.

“We’re in the process of writing an even stronger nutrition policy,” he adds. “We are really 10 years ahead of other districts. What we are seeing coming out of the health department is that there has been about a 2½% decline in obesity in Los Angeles in children. What we are doing is clearly working. We went from this menu that was kid friendly, that was more grab-and-go-type of foods, to one that is much healthier with a lot more fruits and vegetables. Is it the right thing to do? Yes it is. Will we stay the course? Absolutely. What I keep hearing from the principals is that as we keep tweaking and teaching and encouraging the kids, more and more kids are participating.”

Binkle says the areas where the department still has to work to meet the new regulations are creating age/grade groups and meeting minimum and maximum calorie ranges.