Lunch ladies of Western New York, rejoice.
It turns out local school kids might not be such picky eaters after all.
This time last year, a set of new federal school lunch guidelines governing everything from calorie counts to veggie quotas debuted in cafeterias nationwide, leaving area school administrators to wonder if students would take kindly to health-conscious offerings like whole-wheat hamburger buns and romaine lettuce.
Now, with one year of the updated National School Lunch Program under their belts, food service directors throughout the area say their schools and students are adjusting to the new guidelines reasonably well – budgetary challenges and initial complaints of yuckiness notwithstanding.
“I think we’re doing pretty well with everything” said Barbara Albi, food service director for the Depew Union Free School District.
Albi said her district’s school lunch program experienced no loss in participation after the new policies took effect. Kids seemed to adapt slowly but surely to the different food items that began appearing on their trays last school year.
“At first it was difficult to get the kids to accept the extra fruits and vegetables,” Albi said, describing how cafeteria workers watched uneaten healthier items pile up in garbage cans.
But by the year’s end, Albi said, the district “was ripping through” servings of healthier items like canned fruit as youngsters warmed up to the new offerings – so much so that, for the first time in Albi’s 12 years as food service director, the district had to order more canned fruit to keep up with demand.
With the resumption of school this week, Albi said, “I think that more and more kids will come on board” and accept the healthier lunches.
But other districts had a more difficult time adjusting to last year’s policy changes, acknowledged Albi, who also serves as president of the Erie County Chapter of the State School Nutrition Association.
Under the new federal guidelines, which also feature age-based calorie caps and limits on carbohydrate and protein consumption, a student’s meal must include a fruit or vegetable item in order for the school to receive federal money to help cover the cost of that meal. Last year, schools stood to receive up to $2.86 per meal, depending on whether the meals were free, reduced or full price.
Many school districts are still working to crack the code on how to comply with the new federal standards while staying within budget, a task made difficult by more costly ingredients and, in some districts, slower sales.
Nationwide, an estimated 1 percent of 521 school districts polled planned to drop the program entirely, according to the School Nutrition Association. Albi said she knew of no local district that was planning to do so this year.
Many of the healthy choices that school lunch menus must now feature, including fruit and vegetables as well as whole grains, take the place of cheaper, more-processed items, driving up budgets as a result.
“Of course your costs are going to go up,” said Susan Birmingham, food service director for the Frontier Central School District. Hers is one of at least three Western New York school districts projecting budget deficits for their food programs this year.
Faced with a projected shortfall of $150,325 in its $1.91 million food department budget, the Frontier Board of Education voted in August to increase the price of breakfast and lunch by 50 cents. The Olean and Springville school districts also reported deficits.
In addition to the increased cost of food, districts in the red pointed to a drop in the number of lunches sold as part of the reason for their recent challenges. Birmingham and administrators from other districts said that restrictions on the kinds and quantities of foods served scared some students away from the lunch line.
“That was probably the biggest problem in our high school and middle school last year,” Birmingham conceded. This year, she added, “we’re hoping we’re going to see a little bit of increase in kids taking the meal.”
Birmingham and others said rising costs and reduced demand are only part of the puzzle for districts, which also face rising costs of labor and declining enrollment in some areas.
One change school administrators are banking on to help their bottom lines is a decision by the federal government to temporarily relax some of its standards in response to schools’ complaints that limits on calories and portion sizes left some kids wanting more to eat.
In the Buffalo school district, where more kids than in suburban districts receive free or reduced-price meals due to a lack of resources at home, the portion limits hit especially hard, said Brigid O’Brien Wood, director of food service for the district.
“The kids didn’t understand it – like why weren’t they getting more food to eat?” she said.
O’Brien Wood, whose staff serves 30,000 lunches and 24,000 breakfasts every day, called the decision to relax the National School Lunch Program’s protein and carbohydrate limits a “good sign.” If last year was marked by concerted efforts to simply comply with the new standards, this year’s focus will be on “getting the menu more palatable and more appealing for all students,” she said.
Ultimately, the schools that fared best started preparing for the changes years in advance.
Many districts touted their efforts to introduce healthier foods gradually so that by the time the new foods were mandatory, kids were already used to seeing them.
In Akron, schools have been serving whole grain bread for at least six years and pushing fruit for the past three. “The kids have grown up with it since they were in the elementary school,” said Barbara Goodman, director of food service.
The district is already looking ahead to another wave of federal changes that will, among other things, require fruit to be served at breakfast. “This year is a year of introduction. Next year will become a year of regulation,” Goodman said.