What really worries Susan Birmingham is the spaghetti. Not the PB&J. Not the grilled cheese. Not even the potato chips.
Birmingham’s cafeterias in the Frontier Central School District already switched those items to more whole grains as required by federal school lunch standards phased in during the last four years.
But whole grain spaghetti?
That’s going to be a tough sell, she said. Kids are accustomed to eating regular pasta and sauce.
“If they’re not used to eating whole grain spaghetti at home, there is no way they will take it at school,” said Birmingham, food service director at Frontier.
Healthy choices are the norm in school cafeterias today. Pizza crust is made with whole grain flour. Chocolate milk is skim. Kale and bok choy have made appearances in lunch lines. But as even more stringent federal standards take effect in schools next month, food service directors say their work to feed children has become an increasingly difficult struggle between meeting the new rules and balancing budgets.
Make no mistake. Local food service directors say plenty of good has come from efforts to increase fruit, vegetables and whole grains in school lunches. But they’re also concerned the changes have cut into sales at a time when they’ve struggled with declining enrollment and increasing food and labor costs.
“We want what’s best for the kids, and we all agree with healthier foods and healthier choices,” said Barbara Albi, who runs the food service department at Depew Union Free School District and is president of the Erie County School Nutrition Association. “But I think we need more flexibility.”
Food service directors aren’t the only ones worried. Republican lawmakers in the House of Representative have sought a one-year waiver for schools that can prove financial losses because of the nutrition rules. The proposed waivers prompted pushback from Michelle Obama, who has championed the school lunch reforms as a key to fighting childhood obesity.
New nutrition rules
“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Obama said last month.
Locally, some food service workers bristle at those words. Feeding students affordable, healthy lunches, they say, has nothing to do with the politics.
“We’re doing the right things, but some of it is overkill,” Albi said of the federal regulations. “Instead of getting the foods into the kids, we’re not, because they look at it, and they say, ‘I’m not taking that.’ All of our good intentions are there. It’s just that a lot of the restrictions are so tight now.”
They’re about to get tighter.
Beginning July 1, schools that accept federal lunch funds must limit all grain products to only those made with more than half whole wheat or whole grains. In addition, new restrictions on calories, fat, sugar and sodium will take effect on all snack items sold in schools during the day – including at bake sales.
On a recent school day at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in Depew, Albi watched first-graders stream through the lunch line where they were offered baked pork chops breaded with whole-wheat crumbs, sweet potatoes, corn, bananas and a tropical fruit cup with papaya and pineapple, among other items. The students have become accustomed to new requirements that they take a fruit or vegetable, and many left with blue trays with two or three fruit and vegetables.
But as Albi sifted through the ice cream cooler where students can buy treats after they’ve eaten lunch, she noted the items that could not be sold next year. Some choices – such as low-fat chocolate ice cream – will be reformulated by manufacturers to meet the new standards. But other popular treats will not. Even the traditional school pretzel stick – sold for two for a dime at Cayuga Heights – will have to switch to a version made with more than half whole grains.
New York State has limited sales of candy and pop in schools for years, and Depew schools, like most local schools, already offer plenty of healthy treats, including fresh fruit and baked chips. But some healthier versions of traditional snack foods, such as multigrain SunChips, also won’t meet new standards on calorie restrictions that take effect July 1.
Companies also are racing against the new standards. Perry’s Ice Cream, based in Akron, will offer six Perry’s products that meet the new standards and is working on reformulating others, but dozens of ice cream treats it now sells won’t make the cut, including its popular Buddie Bar line. Meeting the new snack standards would have required the company to cut half the fat from those treats, said Eva Balazs, director of marketing and contract sales.
“That would really hurt the flavor experience, so we chose not to change those,” Balazs said.
As food service directors wait for products to catch up, some are concerned they won’t have enough choices to sell a la carte next year. That’s important, Birmingham said, because those sales supplement school food service budgets that operate, in most districts, as “independent restaurants” that don’t receive property tax funds from general school district budgets.
“If we don’t have a la carte sales, you really can’t make it on what you’re charging kids and on what reimbursement we’re getting from the government,” Birmingham said.
Eating their vegetables
Bake sales held during the school day will also fall under the new federal snack regulations. U.S. Department of Agriculture rules allow states to exempt some school-sponsored fund-raisers, but a spokesman for the state Education Department said New York will not issue any exemptions.
“All food items sold for fundraisers and intended to be consumed in school must meet USDA’s standards,” said Jonathan Burman, an Education Department spokesman.
Food sold at sporting events and anything sold at least 30 minutes after the school day will not have to meet the snack requirements, Burman said.
As they prepare for the new rules, those who run school cafeterias say they are proud of the work they’ve already done to make fruit and vegetables more appetizing to children. The Williamsville Central School District buys 20 tons of produce from local farmers each year. It also has expanded fruit and vegetable options to meet requirements that schools serve a variety of fruits and vegetables each week.
Like other school districts, Williamsville offers pizza made with whole grain dough and low-fat cheese.
“The kids don’t even realize it’s whole-grain rich,” said Kathryn Christopher, who has been Williamsville’s child nutrition director for 23 years.
Students are eating more fruit and vegetables, Christopher and Albi said.
While districts saw early instances of children throwing away produce they were required to put on their tray, Albi said waste has decreased as students have gotten used to the new rules. In Williamsville, Christopher said, students are told they can take fresh fruit with them if they don’t have time to eat it during lunch.
“We encourage the kids, ‘Take that beautiful apple home,’ ” Christopher said.
A study published in March by the Harvard School of Public Health found the new standards did not increase the average amount of waste per student, contrary to early reports of fruit and vegetables ending up in garbage cans.
For many changes, food service directors said, it takes time for children to adapt. Ten years ago, students grumbled when Albi got rid of the deep fryers in Depew. The first year Frontier served peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread rather than white, workers made the sandwiches with one slice of wheat and one slice of white. Today, the kids expect the whole wheat sandwiches.
But directors remain concerned that the changes affect sales. Local school district cafeterias have had to deal with smaller student enrollments and increased costs, as well as a federal requirement they increase lunch prices gradually to reflect federal reimbursement rates. Some of the new health requirements are also more costly than traditional products.
As school lunch prices have gone up, some parents simply opt to send lunches from home, Albi said.
And then there’s pasta. Federal regulations next year require that all grain products – including pasta – be made with more than half whole wheat or whole grains. But in some cases, Birmingham said, affordable whole wheat options that cook well are just not yet available.
“The biggest problem with most school districts is pasta,” Birmingham said. “I use the example: My husband won’t even eat whole grain spaghetti.”
Buffalo Public Schools already made the switch to all whole-grain rich products because of a district wellness policy adopted two years ago. The transition was tough – the district is still searching for an acceptable spaghetti – but Food Service Director Bridget O’Brien Wood said students have begun to adapt. Picky eaters who at first choose to eat hamburgers with no buns have started to eat the whole wheat versions.
‘We had some struggles’
“We had some struggles, and we had some bumps in the road,” O’Brien Wood said. “But you just keep working on it.”
There may be some relief for districts worried about pasta options. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a memo last month acknowledging that some whole wheat pastas – especially elbow macaroni and lasagna – don’t hold up when cooked in large quantities. The department will offer some flexibility for pasta, but districts must prove they tried to find a suitable alternative.
Back at Cayuga Heights, Albi’s cafeteria is decorated with posters that advocate for healthy eating. But she noted that school meals are only a portion of what children eat. Fighting childhood obesity, she said, will take an even wider focus on exercise and food.
“Sure, we can teach kids,” Albi said. “But we can’t save the world.”
Changes at lunchtime
Beginning July 1, schools will have to meet new regulations that restrict calories, fat, sodium and sugar in snacks sold during the school day in schools that accept federal lunch reimbursement. Here’s a look at what’s in and what’s not under the new regulations:
• Fresh fruit
• Quaker Breakfast Cookies, oatmeal raisin 1.7 oz
• Low-fat vanilla ice cream dixie cup
• Goldfish cheddar crackers made with whole grain
• Baked! Cheetos
• Reduced Fat Doritos (1-ounce package)
• Whole wheat pasta
• Short bread cookies not made with whole grain flour
• Cotton Candy Buddie Bars
• Goldfish cheddar crackers
• Spaghetti made with more than half enriched white flour