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Schools face nutrition crunch

Federal healthy meals regulations present challenges, promise for district food programs
Jessica Shelly, food services director of Cincinnati Public Schools, sits with an elementary student during lunch. Their nutritious lunch includes milk, carrots, apple sauce and yogurt.
Jessica Shelly, food services director of Cincinnati Public Schools, sits with an elementary student during lunch. Their nutritious lunch includes milk, carrots, apple sauce and yogurt.

A Chicago suburban district, realizing it would lose more money than it rakes in, opted out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program last month in response to strict, new federal health regulations.

But many districts nationwide can’t afford to give up federal subsidies, forcing administrators to find ways to encourage students to eat the healthier foods required by the federal rules.

The USDA’s new Smart Snacks rules, which eliminate junk food in schools and go into effect July 1, are the latest in a slew of health regulations. They are part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which also includes regulations for breakfast and lunch that were fully enforced during the 2013-14 school year, and have left some food service directors struggling to find compliant, affordable recipes that students will enjoy.

“We believe we are the engine that starts the school day, and we have to prepare students for the academic process,” says Mary Hill, executive director of food service at Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi. “But if we’re not careful we’re going to take the joy out of food, we’re removing so much [salt, sugar and flavor] from it.”

The Arlington Heights School District, a system outside Chicago, will lose a $900,000 federal subsidy. But it gets $2.2 million annually from its a`la carte menu of pizza and fries and more than $500,000 from vending machines—all of which are foods targeted by the new regulations to make healthier.

The Hunger-Free act’s breakfast and lunch standards, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, require school cafeterias to drastically reduce the amount of fat and sodium.

Schools must serve only whole-grain breads along with more fruits and vegetables. Jimmie Turner, a USDA spokesperson, says the new regulations “will result in better food choices and a healthier future for children.”

Regulations up close

The main changes of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act can be condensed into these six regulations:

  • Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk
  • Reduce the amounts of saturated fat, transfats and sodium
  • Serve proper portion sizes

However, after some school nutrition officials and Congress criticized the standards as being too difficult to put into place, the Agriculture Department announced in mid-May that it will allow some schools to delay adding more whole grains to meals this year, according to ABC News, and to the chagrin of First Lady Michelle Obama.

The USDA said schools can put off for two years a requirement that all pastas in schools be whole grain-rich, or more than half whole-grain, if they can show they have had “significant challenges” in preparing the pasta. Many schools have complained the whole-grain pastas don’t hold together well when cooked.

In a study of state programs by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, lead author Daniel Taber says in an interview that obesity rates can be reduced by strong laws for school meals, such as those that require a specific amount of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and only serve 1 percent fat or skim milk. Many students from lower-income families rely on school meals to get nutrients they need, so it’s critical for schools to offer healthy lunches.

“We also found that students from lower-income families had higher obesity rates than other students, which is consistent with findings from other studies,” he says. “States that had strong nutrition standards for school meals helped eliminate that disparity.”

While this study and others show promising results for the new regulations, the standards represent numerous challenges for school nutrition departments.

Rethinking operations

Meeting the standards required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act means most school food service staffs must spend more money to meet requirements, and many additional hours each day on paperwork, training and food preparation.

“There’s a lot more detailed nutritional analysis that has to be done every day,” says Jessica Shelly, food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools. “The biggest increase of our workload is taking data from schools about what kids are eating and not eating and breaking that down to revise menus while still meeting budget and following guidelines.”

In preparation for the changes, Shelly restructured the duties of her district’s central office staff. Each person, rather than handling a wide range of tasks, now has a specialty.

The district has a supervisor of nutrition who ensures all menus meet nutritional criteria. A manager of operations and marketing develops new menu items and ensures schools are serving foods students like. And three field administrators work with teachers, administrators and students to communicate nutrition information and obtain feedback on menu items and service. Finally, three assistant supervisors handle regulation and compliance.

A new menu

School breakfast and lunch menus at North Carolina’s Durham Public Schools taste different this year. Here’s a look at the major menu changes:


  • More recipes from scratch and fewer processed foods
  • A minimum of three fruits at breakfast and lunch
  • Two days a week, fruit juice has been replaced with fresh fruits or vegetables and bottled water on the after-school menu
  • A new “healthy snack” ordering sheet is available for after-school groups and organizations that want to buy snacks directly from the Child Nutrition Department. This ensures students receive healthy items outside of regular school hours
  • Organic soy milk, and gluten-free and organic cereals have been added
  • Whole-grain breadsticks, croissants and biscuits have been added


  • No flavored milk at breakfast
  • Pizza is allowed only one day per week for elementary students and can be offered three days per week for middle and high school students
  • French fries are allowed only one day per week
  • Frozen juice drinks and foods that resemble pastries, cinnamon buns, doughnuts or danishes have been banned

The USDA also now requires intense, three-year reviews covering financials, menus, nutritional analysis, health inspections and other practices. Previously, districts did these reviews every five years, and the more aggressive schedule “creates a backlog of work for state agencies and schools alike, and it’s overwhelming,” says Gay Anderson, child nutrition director at Brandon Valley School District in South Dakota. Keeping staff informed of all the changes “is daunting and difficult as things change so often,” he adds.

For instance, there has been some confusion over different requirements being phased in at different times. Many lunch requirements started in 2012, but the first breakfast requirements came in 2013. And in 2014, there were four additional requirements, including targets for sodium and whole grains, the cup of fruit at breakfast, and Smart Snack food standards that limit snacks to having only 200 calories.

Although final regulations may be tweaked before they are phased in, some districts have had success by integrating standards slowly before they are required. For instance, Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District started making changes four years ago so students and staff are more accustomed to the now-required menus and practices.

Given the complexity of the regulations, some state agencies are interpreting the rules differently, and as questions arise “the USDA is constantly releasing new guidance on how schools should manage certain aspects of the requirements,” Anderson says. She recently received the USDA’s question-and-answer document, 62 pages of which cover only lunch regulations.

Nutrition leaders also are struggling with budgets. Whole-grain products and additional fruits and vegetables usually cost more than highly processed foods. And there’s no guarantee that students will eat the healthier meals. As Anderson’s cafeterias experiment with new items, it’s difficult to set bid specifications without knowing how much food is required, she says. As a result, suppliers have a hard time pricing her requests because she can’t be sure in advance how much she will need.

Of course, eating whole foods and food made from scratch is generally more healthy than purchasing pre-made, processed foods. But when Brandon Valley makes more food in-house, student consumption falls, representing another loss of revenue, Anderson says.

Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District has been working to serve healthier meals and to offer nutrition training to staff. Its meal program is “very close to budget neutral,” thanks to rising participation rates, grants and funds raised in the community, says Ann Cooper, the district’s director of food services.

She attributes increased participation to a rigorous nutrition education program and time, as Boulder Valley has been working toward meeting the new requirements for four years.

While the district saw a participation decline of 4 percent during the first year of the changes—in part because older students were used to more processed foods—participation is up 7 percent this year across 52 schools, Cooper says.

“Those who were in kindergarten five years ago are now in middle school and they don’t know any different,” she says. “It takes five years to really get change started and 10 years to finish it. We didn’t get the obesity problem overnight; it took 25 to 30 years.”

James Keaten, executive director of child nutrition services at Durham Public Schools in North Carolina, diverted some of the district’s USDA funds to the Farm-To-School Program, which helps schools purchase locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

Reconfiguring menus

One of the most challenging aspects of the new rules is the food itself. To meet regulations, many districts are making their own food—also known as “scratch cooking.” Buying ingredients is less expensive, but cooking from scratch requires more manpower, so the costs even out, says Boulder Valley’s Cooper.

The new rules meant that almost every item on Durham schools’ menus required a new recipe, Keaten says. Developing new recipes was expensive and time-consuming, requiring extensive staff training.

Some districts have had difficulty finding vendors that supply acceptable products. For instance, all products that include any breading must be whole-grain. Districts such as Jackson, which often serve grits for breakfast, have yet to find a suitable vendor. Many manufacturers have been working to make new items that meet standards, but it “takes time to develop a whole-grain chicken nugget,” says Jackson’s Hill.

Other districts have found vendors that have “stepped up to the plate” to offer appetizing new items, says Cincinnati’s Shelly. For instance, two vendors offer hamburgers that include mushrooms in the beef, “adding flavor and juiciness” while reducing sodium to the appropriate level.

Nutrition workers have been required to do more extensive meal planning, says Amanda Carlson, director of child nutrition for Vestavia Hills City Schools in Alabama. They must keep up with calories, sodium requirements, how often certain foods are served, and student satisfaction, she says. Getting students to eat the new foods is a matter of trial and error, and food service personnel are getting creative.

“Instead of regular steamed broccoli, we will roast broccoli and add some Parmesan cheese to give a different flavor and texture,” Carlson says. “We also make zesty black-eyed pea salad with bell peppers and a balsamic dressing,” Carlson says.

Some districts have reported that students are throwing away more food since the regulations went into effect. But a recent, nationwide Harvard study found the changes are doing the opposite, and increasing consumption of healthy foods in K12 districts without driving up the rate of waste.

For instance, consumption of the main entrée has increased from 72 percent to 88 percent since the changes, the study found. In addition, 23 percent more students selected a fruit, and among those who selected a vegetable, consumption rose to 41 percent from 25 percent.

Re-educating students

“Food literacy” is vital to getting students on board with the changes, Cooper says. In Boulder Valley, the staff has raised funds to provide nutrition ed programs, such as chef demonstrations, a junior chef competition where students create their own recipes, and “Rainbow Days,” in which every elementary student is offered a free trip to the salad bar to fill their plates with at least four different colors. Those who eat all their colors get a sticker.

Students at Liberty Park Elementary School at the Vestavia Hills district in Alabama visit the school’s garden to see produce that will eventually be served in their cafeteria. Amy Long, manager of the child nutrition program, says when students see vegetables in the ground, “75 percent of them are completely shocked” because they don’t understand where food comes from.

Progress may be challenging and slow, but many school nutrition workers believe it’s a worthwhile struggle. After more than 31 years in school food service, Jackson’s Hill has seen the field “make a 360-degree turn,” she says.

“We’re almost back to what we were doing when I was in school, which was a lot of scratch cooking,” Hill says. “There are some hills to climb, but we have to get there, to give students something healthy they will accept so they’ll be ready to learn.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Alabama.