Schools' New Balancing Act

School districts struggle with calories, “choices” and student acceptance as they try to implement new USDA meal regulations.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

The first two or three months of the 2012-2013 school year could rank as the most challenging time for the National School Lunch Program since its inception more than 60 years ago. New meal regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, set down as a result of the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, are playing havoc with programs across the country.

Operators still are struggling to understand the rules even as they implement them, having had only a few months to decipher them before the start of the school year. But many directors already are reporting increased costs associated with the regulations—as much as 30 to 40 cents more per meal—that far exceed the additional six-cent reimbursement districts will receive from the USDA for complying with the rules.

Several districts have seen students boycott cafeterias, ironically because students believe they aren’t getting enough food at lunch. In Sharon Springs, Kan., high school students created a video parody of the song “We Are Young” by Fun., called “We Are Hungry,” which has gotten more than 1 million hits on YouTube.

At the same time, at least two districts—in Dallas and Lake County, Fla.—reportedly are considering installing “trash cams” to document the amount of food—particularly fruits and vegetables—that is being thrown away by students since the new regulations went into effect.

Welcome to the new world order of school foodservice, one that—in theory—will help to curb the rising rate of childhood obesity and set the nation’s schoolchildren on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

Among the major changes that have been mandated, students are required to take at least one-half cup of fruit or vegetable for a meal to be reimbursable. In addition, there must be minimum amounts offered weekly in five different categories: dark green, red or orange, legumes, starchy vegetables and “other,” in descending order of importance.

Proteins and grains are now regulated by age group—delineated as pre-K through 5th grade, 6th through 8th and 9th through 12th—with daily minimums and weekly maximums. At least half of the grains offered must be whole grains, with the percentage rising to 100% within the next two years.

Finally, calories must fall within specified limits as defined by the USDA: 550 to 650 for youngest students, 650 to 700 for middle school students and 750 to 800 for high school students.  

Adding to the headaches for school foodservice directors is the fact that the regulations were made final only earlier this year, leaving operators scrambling to rewrite menus and train staffs.

“One of the problems was that there was never anything in concrete until March of 2012,” says Jeff Denton, foodservice director for the Ponca City (Okla.) School District. “I mean, we had a good idea that it might be this or it might be that, but we didn’t really know. The calorie limits blindsided me, and the grain restrictions caught me completely off-guard.”

Editor’s note: Representatives from the USDA did not make themselves available for an interview in time to be included in this article.

Jill Funk, R.D., nutritionist for the Shawnee Mission (Kan.) School District, compared the menu planning to “working a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Last year I started planning in October, and when the guidelines came out I did have to make some adjustments to comply with the meat and grain requirements,” says Funk. “Then, any time the USDA came out with a new answer during the Q&A we had to make some tweaks.”

Denton calls it “playing Sudoku with menus. When I get a four-week menu cycle that works, I may ride it ‘til May because that will be the easiest thing to do.”
Directors in several districts view the new rules as a “one size fits all” solution that doesn’t work and may actually undermine the progress they’ve made toward healthier school meals.

“I believe that most districts do strive to provide nutritious meals,” says Virginia Beck, assistant director of foodservice for the Clark County (Nev.) School District. “I believe we are being punished for those districts that don’t, because [USDA officials] want complete control.

“We always used the nutrient analysis menu. I felt that was extremely important because 57% of the students in our district get free or reduced-price lunch. Many of those students don’t get another nutritious meal that day,” Beck adds. “But with the new restrictions, they don’t want us to do nutritional analysis, except for sodium and calories and fat, and I find that appalling. [Nutrition] isn’t even taken into the equation. All they care is that you have to give them a protein, grain, vegetables and fruit and milk.”

Joanne Kinsey, foodservice director for the Chesapeake (Va.) School District, is another operator who followed nutrient-based menu planning.

“We’ve used nu-menus since 1994,” Kinsey says. “All of our portions weren’t CN equivalents because they didn’t have to be. Now they do.”

Nancy Coughenour, R.D., manager of the foodservice department at Shawnee Mission, agrees that nu-menu users were at a disadvantage.

“We felt we started out well-prepared,” she notes. “The biggest thing to remember is that we’ve always used a food-based menu planning system. A lot of other districts that weren’t planning that way are some of the ones that are struggling.”

Funk, Shawnee Mission’s nutritionist, adds, “That’s because they are learning the new guidelines along with a new menu planning system. [Already being on food-based menus] has helped us tremendously."

School districts that have been part of the HealthierUS School Challenge also seem to be faring better than those that have not.

“The U.S. Healthier Schools criteria aren’t that far off the new regulations,” says Sandra Ford, foodservice director for the Manatee County (Fla.) School District. “So we had started implementing some of the changes over the last couple of years. Our biggest challenge has actually been operating procedures, how we train staff and what they need to know.”

According to Ponca City’s Denton, one group hurt by the new regulations has been smaller districts with limited budgets for travel and education and with directors who may not have the skill sets of directors in larger districts.

“In Oklahoma there are 534 school districts, and maybe 21 of them are considered large districts,” he explains. “But most are small, rural schools where people don’t get to leave to go to workshops. All they want to do is feed their kids.”

After talking with directors in several of these districts, Denton says, he understood that many of them didn’t even understand the new regulations. He convinced state officials to go in and provide some in-service for those directors.

The grain controversy: When it comes to menu planning, there are three areas giving directors headaches: grains, fruits and vegetables, and calories. With grains, the challenge for many directors has been to try to meet daily minimums without going over the weekly maximums.

“I have been in this business for 37 years, and this is the first time we’ve ever had a maximum,” says Kinsey. “There are daily and weekly minimums and maximums, and they are different for each grade level. In some cases, there are days when we haven’t met the minimum, but for the week we’ve exceeded the maximum. It’s a nightmare.”

Kinsey uses the example of the 8-inch tortilla shells she uses to make wraps and soft tacos. Each one equals one grain equivalent. But to meet a daily minimum, she would have to give customers two soft tacos instead of one, which might put her over the calorie limit for the day. Her only solutions are to find a substitute for the tortillas—which, by the way, are a USDA commodity item—that will meet two grain equivalents or eliminate tacos from the menu.

At the same time, she faces a different dilemma with a pasta dish like stuffed shells.

“When we serve pasta, we’re going to have to go with a smaller breadstick—you can’t serve Italian food without bread—or else cut the portion size, which is challenging with something like stuffed shells,” Kinsey notes. “Eventually, I can see where kids are going to say, ‘you are giving me less food.’”

In Oklahoma, near the nation’s wheat belt, directors are even more challenged, says Denton.

“In this part of the country people eat a lot of grains,” he says. “When we look at our protein selections, we have quite a few but only a few that don’t include grains. So that doesn’t give us much flexibility. I thought that if we were offering whole grains we were going to be all right.”

Burlington (Vt.) School District is another that has relied heavily on grains in the past because of the diversity of the student population. Foodservice Director Doug Davis points out that Burlington has only 4,000 students, but 60 different languages are spoken.

“That has created a menu plan that incorporates comfort foods from a lot of different countries,” Davis explains. “For the most part, beans and rice is a big hit. It was vegetarian, there was a protein there and it was culturally recognizable. We used to offer it every day. But because of the grain limits, we can’t offer it every day. Also, we offer soup every day, and with the grain and protein limits we’ve had to re-evaluate the types of soups we offer.”

Davis adds that the grain limits also have undone much of the work many school districts did in trying to promote grains as a healthy choice.

“We were training staff on how to cook quinoa and barley salads and brown rice salads and whole-grain pastas—things that now, we’re not even able to use anymore,” he says. “Those were items that were low-cost and were a good source of fiber and, in some cases, protein.”

Clark County’s Beck also thinks the grain limits are ill-advised because they are so restrictive.

“I think it’s wrong to limit middle school students to 10 ounces of grains for an entire week,” she says. “When you look at a hamburger bun and tortilla chips, you’ve got three ounces right there.”

Calorie counters: Calorie limits is another area that has been giving directors fits. Interestingly, the problem is more often that staffs can’t reach even calorie minimums without some creative menu planning.

“My concern—in a district where the free and reduced rate is 60%—is that my kids’ bellies are full when they go home,” says Burlington’s Davis. “I truly respect the changes and agree with the concepts behind them, but one thing that doesn’t ring totally true for me is the expectation that we are providing a set amount of calories for these children through breakfast and lunch, with the belief that they are receiving the balance of those calories when they go home. I’m not saying we don’t need limits. What I am saying is that to assume these kids are getting adequate food at home is a stretch.”

Denton says part of the problem among districts that have done all they can to make meals healthier is that they may have cut too much.

“We’re now so lean we don’t have enough calories,” he explains, pointing out that the grain and protein limits are the USDA’s contribution to this problem. “I’ve had to switch back to full-strength ranch dressing. We had gone to fat free. But now we don’t have enough calories. I’m having to put caramel with apple slices. I’m doing things I would never have thought of doing before, and if I did think about it I sure wouldn’t have told anyone.”

In the Chesapeake schools, offering enough calories has always been a challenge, even with the nutrient-based system, according to Kinsey. But now that the levels are mandated, the problem becomes more acute.

“Without exceeding our maximums we’re going to try to supplement the entrée,” she notes. “But we can’t offer more in the grain/bread category. We can’t offer desserts because we can’t afford to.”

Manatee’s Ford, who also is the current president of the School Nutrition Association, says this issue appears to be across the board.

“Calorie minimums is definitely something we’re hearing from our members,” says Ford. “When the new regs came out, everyone was worried about keeping meals within that calorie range. But the reality is we’re having trouble getting meals into that range.”

Denton isn’t happy with the answer the USDA has been giving when asked about the calorie minimums.

“When we say that kids are complaining they aren’t getting enough to eat, the response is, ‘they can buy à la carte,’” he says. “Excuse me, but isn’t that what you are trying to fix? We’re supposed to tell them, ‘We’re not going to give you enough food, but you can always buy something extra.’ I think that puts us kind of back to where we were.”

Kinsey, where 32% of students receive free or reduced-price meals, points out that pushing à la carte sales creates two problems. One is that it doesn’t help those kids who don’t have the money to buy à la carte. More important, à la carte sales don’t help the district.

“For some of these kids to pay à la carte isn’t an issue because they have the money,” she says. “We’re selling food, but that’s not my goal. Everything that we earn is driven off of reimbursable meals. We have to try to get parents to convince their kids to take the reimbursable meal because it’s better economically for parents but also for the health value.”

Fruits & vegetables everywhere: But of all the challenges facing directors, the mandate to guarantee that every child receiving a reimbursable meal takes a fruit or vegetable is perhaps the most frustrating. Many directors report that more produce is winding up in trash cans than ever before, prompting the Dallas and Lake County districts to consider monitoring student food waste through “trash cams” that would record the produce going into the bins.

But it brings up an issue that many parents would argue is a proven fact: If you make a child do something, he or she is going to rebel.

“A half-cup of fruit or vegetable for a five-year-old is a sure sign to me that most of it is going to end up in the garbage,” says Clark County’s Beck. “You can’t give a five-year-old an entrée, vegetable, fruit and milk and not have it go to waste.”

What galls Beck most is the district had been making strides in improving produce consumption.

“We introduced a pilot over a year ago with big baskets of fresh fruit at the register for the older kids,” she explains. “Little kids were offered apple or orange slices or grapes in bags. We had quite a variety. Kids could take it if they wanted. Our consumption of fresh fruit skyrocketed, because it was their choice. To have that now mandated, to me, is overlegislation.”

Denton recalls a recent incident he encountered while visiting an elementary school cafeteria. He saw that students were receiving only three orange slices instead of six.

A line server explained that teachers had asked them to cut the serving size in half.

“The server told me the kids are throwing them away,” he relates. “I said, ‘I know, but we gotta give them six. It doesn’t make any sense, but we gotta do it.’”

Denton adds that, according to one purveyor he spoke with, the USDA mandate on produce is driving prices higher.

“He said the higher prices aren’t because of the drought,” Denton says. “It’s because of the demand. There is a growing shortage of produce. These are the kinds of unforeseen costs we’re running into.”

In Shawnee Mission, the foodservice department is serving fruits and vegetables in smaller portions, allowing students to mix and match items to meet the half-cup requirement.  

“We knew that if students got a huge serving of something that might turn them off,” says Coughenour. “So they just have to have two scoops [of some assortment of fruits and vegetables] and then we’re fine. That has worked really well. We also introduced juice as a choice at lunchtime.”

Chesapeake’s Kinsey also offers four ounces of juice for younger students.

“I know there is a lot of controversy over that, but a lot of our kids like juice and will take it. If that’s what it will take to get the fruit and vegetable component in, we’re allowing that as an option.”

Manatee’s Ford is one director who says she hasn’t had a problem with the fruit and vegetable regulation. She says she likes the mandate because “it doesn’t require any thinking on the part of students to get that fruit or vegetable on the tray.”

“And we make sure we always have at least four or five fruit and vegetable choices out there every day,” Ford adds. “Surely we can catch the eye of a student with one of them.”

Ford also believes that more variety doesn’t have to mean higher cost.

“We’ve done a lot of work with our management staff to get them to understand the cost of the items they’re putting out there,” she explains. “Kiwi is one example. We used to serve kiwi a lot. But under the new requirements, we have to serve two kiwi. So now kiwi is a special event-type thing.”

Ford also recommends balance; when her district serves an expensive item like kiwi it is paired with less costly items like applesauce, “which is also a favorite.”

Burlington is one district that has found a creative solution to both the fruit and vegetable and calorie challenges. The foodservice department has partnered with a local bean grower to come up with a black bean crumble that can be used in a variety of items, such as a black bean crumble chili.

“The kids like it, and because it qualifies as a fruit and vegetable choice, it is unlimited,” Davis notes.

A matter of execution: Despite the complaints from directors, most don’t object to the regulations so much as the way in which they were implemented.

“I would have thought that it would have been tested somewhere or piloted,” says Denton. “Tested in large schools, small schools, East Coast, West Coast, middle America. When they implemented the nutrient-based menus, there was a several-year pilot leading up to it. There was absolutely no testing on this. They were so anxious to get this passed that the people making the rules weren’t saying, ‘How does this affect you downstream? How does this affect you on the front line?’And the training? If I said it was sub-par I’d be being generous.”

Burlington’s Davis believes that the program could have been phased in, and Chesapeake’s Kinsey agrees.

“Here’s what would have made sense,” says Kinsey. “Do it one component at a time. Start by making the fruit and vegetable piece mandatory. Also, whole grains. That’s a nonissue for us. And I wouldn’t have put caps on things.”

Kinsey points out that the difference in the weekly maximum grains between the youngest students and the middle school children is one bread equivalent.

“Who determined that the one extra bread makes a difference?” she asks. “What’s the big deal? But that one bread is causing me heartburn.”

The saddest part of the struggle to satisfy the new requirements, says Kinsey, may be that some parents continue to undermine the schools’ best efforts.

“In our elementary schools, parents are allowed to come eat meals with their children,” Kinsey explains. “Except, they don’t come eat our meals. They bring McDonald’s, Quiznos—one father said he was bringing pizza for everybody.

“I’m standing in a dining room the first week of school, thinking, ‘And I’m busting my tail to try to do the right thing?’ It’s demoralizing for my staff because we’re trying to offer healthier options and then we’ve got parents doing that right under our noses. Why are we trying so hard if it feels like nobody cares?”