Schools say new meal regs not a problem

Operators say sodium reduction most challenging component.

“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.”

In LAUSD, flavored milk was eliminated last year and the child nutrition team created menus that took into account the proposed meal pattern regulations. (See story on participation and LAUSD’s new menus here.)

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.

Binkle says education is key when adding new menu items to the rotation. He said many of the negative reactions from students to the new menus came from a lack of knowledge about what the meals were and not that the meals didn’t taste good. “I was talking to a teacher and she said this was a teaching moment,” Binkle says. “She was doing lunch supervision, and we had garlic hummus and pita chips on the menu. She said the kids were putting milk on it because they thought it was a cereal. They had never seen it before. Those are things you go through and learn.”

Like Binkle, Karen Johnson, child nutrition director at Yuma Elementary School District in Arizona, says her district is already doing many of the things called for in the new meal pattern. “We offer fruit and veggie bars with dark greens, tomatoes and bell pepper,” she says. “We feel like we’re all stepping in the right direction already.”

Johnson says she puts chili powder on jicama sticks as a way to incorporate a vegetable students might not have tried before. She says the chili powder is a flavor students in that area of the country are used to trying so it entices students to try the jicama.

Another creative way Johnson’s team has boosted produce consumption at breakfast is offering breakfast tables instead of salad bars to add a homey touch to the morning meal. Managers decorate the tables with tablecloths and put the fruit in nice bowls. “The employees really enjoyed creating something of their own,” Johnson says. “And it was nice to have something different for breakfast that has more of a look from home.”

Johnson says she’s still working on how to fulfill the mandate that schools must show what components make up a reimbursable meal at the beginning of the service line. She says she’s not worried about that mandate, saying she expects the School Nutrition Association to offer suggestions. She also said she might work with the students in the art department to create visuals.

Johnson says the sodium levels “are on everyone’s minds,” which is something Karen Green, school nutrition director for Thomas County Schools in Thomasville, Ga., echoes.

“Sodium is the most difficult area,” Green says. “We’ve got to start looking at our recipes. We’ve set levels where we want to be in the coming years. We’ve got to start somewhere. For example, pizza we said we will only accept that has 800 milligrams of sodium or less next year. We’re working with our co-op group to look at the sodium level of entrées we are putting in our bids. We are also going to have fewer breaded items because there tends to be more sodium in those items.”

Green is not, however, concerned with the other regulations. She already offers sweet potato tots and fries, although she says the students prefer the white potato varieties. She also menus yam patties, romaine salad mix, broccoli and Southern favorites turnips and collard greens once a week.

Dawn Houser, director of nutrition services at the Collier County Public Schools in Naples, Fla., recently tried sweet potato fries after receiving a half a truck of commodity sweet potatoes. She says she was reluctant to try the item because they would become mushy on steamtables.

Houser says when the new breakfast regulations are implemented in two years, she is going to focus on offering dried fruit because the district offers so many grab-and-go breakfast meals and she doesn’t want the fruit component to become messy. She adds that with dried fruit the students can eat it at breakfast or save it for a later date.

One concern Houser has follows a recent report issue by the ACDA (American Commodity Distribution Association, which said that the number of fruits and vegetables that were going to be offered through USDA Foods was going to be lower than previous years. Houser says this is because farmers can get a better price for their produce in the commercial market.