In two short years, a quiet revolution has taken place in Minnesota’s school cafeterias: On today’s trays, you’ll see more lean meat than lasagna, and fresh fruit where there was once french fries. Even pizza now features low-fat cheese and whole-grain crust.
The changes are part of a 2010 federal law that requires school breakfasts and lunches to have more fruits, veggies and whole grains and less sodium, fat and calories, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity. In return, schools get more federal funding for meals.
But not everyone is a fan of the regulations, which opponents say are costly, complicated and result in too much wasted food.House Republicans, notably Minnesota’s Rep. John Kline, who heads the education committee, are among the opponents.
The topic has again been in the news, with Kline and Republicans hoping to loosen restrictions on what schools can serve to students. They also want to grant waivers to schools that are losing money on nutrition programs, allowing them a yearlong reprieve from the rules.
Across the south metro, school nutrition directors agree that implementation has been challenging and expensive. But they believe serving healthier fare is ultimately good for students.
Some districts say they are concerned about their ability to implement the latest — and most stringent — round of requirements, related to sodium, snack foods and whole grains. They hope that as the issue heats up, districts may be given more flexibility and time to comply.
“I think it is the right direction to go,” said Pam Haupt, nutrition director for the Northfield district. “I don’t see [the changes] as unreasonable.”
But in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, making the changes over a short period has been tough, said Wendy Knight, food service coordinator. “The intent is good, it just happened so fast,” she said.
She wonders why the regulations weren’t piloted nationally at a few schools first, so any kinks could have been worked out early on.
The requirements have undergone significant changes since the 2010-passed law took effect, with detailed rules attached, in 2012.Meals can now include more calories in the form of lean protein and whole grains, an update made after schools noticed kids leaving hungry that first year, Knight said.
Most officials said that students like the healthier options and that if they take everything offered, there’s enough food to fill them up.
However, in some districts, there’s still concern that secondary students, especially athletes, are leaving hungry, said Cathi Krick, food service director for both Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul.
Next year, Wayzata High School will opt out of the federal school and breakfast programs because students weren’t getting enough calories, officials said.
‘Fearful’ of the new rules
The guidelines are followed by more than 90 percent of Minnesota districts and were rolled out over several years, with the latest round taking effect July 1.
The Prior Lake-Savage district was “on board right away” with the regulations, said Jean Winters, food service director. However, she’s “fearful” of what will happen in July. The new rules stipulate that all grains served must be at least 51 percent whole grain, and that meals have considerably less sodium, she said.
“It’s not an expensive change, but if the kids don’t like it, they’re not going to take it,” she said. Whole-grain pasta in particular is a hard sell for kids because it tastes so different, she said.
The new rules also regulate snacks, including food in the a la carte line, in vending machines and even at class parties.
In addition, the sodium requirements will be hard to meet. The district will no longer be able to offer a turkey and cheese sandwich or a packet of salad dressing because of too much salt, said Knight.“I think it’s hard,” Knight said. “To some extent, it’s crazy.”
Forcing fruits and vegetables
One current regulation: Kids must take a half cup of either fruits or vegetables every day, whether they want it or not.
Officials agree that the expense of fulfilling that requirement is a major reason why districts’ food costs have gone up over the past two years.To cover costs, districts raise lunch prices. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Northfield and Prior-Lake Savage have all raised prices two of the past three years.
But that can be a problem. “When we raise prices, we lose participation,” said Knight, whose district served 5 percent fewer lunches the first year of implementation.
While districts now receive extra federal funding — about 6 cents a lunch — that doesn’t cover the cost of so much fresh produce, which adds 25 cents to a meal, said Brenda Braulick, President of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, an association representing cafeteria professionals. She’s also the food service director for the Sartell-St. Stephen district.
Krick believes that students shouldn’t be required to take fruit, and notes that there’s “a lot of waste” because of the rule.
While cutting up fruit results in more kids eating it, Winter said, half of elementary students still throw some food away, usually produce.
The expense of following the rules and the amount of waste are two reasons why the School Nutrition Association, of which the Minnesota group is an affiliate, has recently taken the same position as House Republicans — that there needs to be more latitude in the rules. The national group advised the government on the original law and has been a staunch supporter of it in the past.
“I think the reason [politicians like Rep. Kline] have gotten involved is because districts have been struggling,” Braulick said.
The national group also believes the regulations are too complicated and have resulted in less students eating meals, meaning less income, Braulick said.
But that doesn’t mean they want to throw the baby out with the broccoli. “The main thing is we really support the regulations, we just want some flexibility,” she said.
The organization wants the feds to loosen some rules, including the requirement that all kids take a fruit or vegetable every day and the latest whole-grain and snack foods rules. Finally, the group supports waivers so districts that have been losing money can take a year off and make improvements, Braulick said.
Given the tensions around the changes, Knight says it’s yet to be seen how the government will apply them long-term. Still, she thinks the guidelines are beneficial.“Ten years from now,” she said, “we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember all the heartache we had making those changes?’”