While schools across the country reevaluate their lunch lines to comply with new federal standards, the Richmond County school system has only a few menu changes to make by the July 1 deadline.
As part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Obama administration introduced new rules in late January that will require more fruit, vegetables and whole grains; less salt; and only low-fat milk be served to U.S. public school students by the start of the 2012-13 school year.
Richmond County cafeteria servers already have banned whole milk and fried foods – they even bake french fries – and make sure all hot dogs and sandwiches are served on whole-wheat buns.
“Our meals are nutritious,” said school nutrition director Josephine Mack. “A lot of these standards, we’re already doing.”
Because the district’s cafeterias are already near compliance, Mack said the only changes that she foresees are more portions of fruits and vegetables every day, less canned fruit and less sodium.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the new guidelines will limit elementary lunches to 650 calories, middle school to 700 calories and high school to 850 calories.
The overhaul is the first set of changes made to the National School Lunch Program in 15 years.
Langford Middle School food nutrition manager Sandra Widener said schools are already monitoring sodium levels and include two to three servings of fresh fruit every week.
“We’re constantly looking at ways to get them to eat vegetables,” she said. “We’re on top of things like low-fat dips and peanut butter to add to vegetables to make them more appealing.”
At Langford on Thursday, pupils piled Salisbury steak, whole-wheat buns, grilled chicken, seasoned rice, okra and tomato wedges, baked french fries and fresh pears onto their trays.
All of those choices would be in compliance with the new guidelines, but Widener said the cafeteria might have to add more sides of fruits and vegetables to the menu every day.
Langford seventh-grader Toni Chatman said she would be happy with more fruit options as long as no one touches her favorite macaroni and cheese offered every other Tuesday.
“I like lunchtime, and I wouldn’t mind more fruit,” she said.
The nutrition guidelines would have been more strenuous if not for a move by Congress in late 2011, which allowed tomato paste on pizza to count as a vegetable and blocked the Obama administration from limiting the amount of starchy vegetable servings each week.
According to the USDA, it will cost $3.2 billion in the next five years to implement the nutrition reform nationwide, but schools will receive an additional 6 cents per meal to cover cost.
Mack said she is still concerned because school nutrition departments are already strained with budget cuts and the high cost of food.
“As far as how much it will cost us, I haven’t the slightest idea,” Mack said.