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As Minnesota students return to school, healthy living is on the menu and the syllabus.
For the first time in more than 15 years, federal school nutrition standards are changing. Cafeterias must offer more fruits and vegetables and cut carbohydrates, meat and calories overall.
Minnesota is going a step further, requiring all districts to adopt minimum physical education standards and issuing optional guidelines for "active recess."
Across the state and the nation, school cafeterias are adding new equipment, retraining staff and overhauling menus to reflect a sea change in school nutrition, just one part of broader recognition of the dual problems of malnutrition and obesity among children. Today, 17 percent of American schoolchildren are obese, and as many as 1 in 5 are at risk for going hungry.
Some parents and educators wonder how well the changes will go over at schools. But supporters say the healthy overhaul is overdue.
"It's just common sense," said Deb Loy, director of Coordinated School Health, a division of the Minnesota Department of Education. "There's a recognition that the quality of the nutrition is important, for kids to get the essential nutrients that their bodies need for brain development, physical development, attention, moods, energy levels, those kinds of things."
Fix it and they will eat
Despite concerns that students won't swap chips for chard, school nutrition experts say they've found the opposite to be true, if kids can choose among several healthier options, help create menus and see foods that are prepared and displayed to look delicious.
The changes in school lunch were approved by Congress in 2010 and reflect current thinking about the optimal proportions of different food groups. They adjust portion sizes for students of different ages. They also dial up daily fruit and vegetable servings and set a limit on protein, breads and grains.
Right now, the federal government pays a percentage for each meal certified to meet USDA nutritional requirements, from a minimum of 27 cents for paid meals to a maximum of $3.04 for meals served free to the poorest kids in the country, and in Minnesota, the state adds 12 cents per qualified meal.
The new federal rules include an additional 6 cents for each qualified meal. Food service directors said they expect the decrease in meat and grains to offset much of the expense of produce, but food costs depend on many factors. They said they won't know for a few months how the changes will affect their budgets.
The standards were written for the average U.S. student, raising some questions about whether the calories will be enough to fuel high school athletes.
Dr. Bill Roberts, chairman of the sports medicine advisory committee of the Minnesota State High School League, said it's more relevant to ask where students get their calories.
"You can get quite a lot of calories by plopping 2 or 3 pats of butter on a piece of bread," he said. "Or you can aim toward fruits and vegetables and healthy fats ... and some milk. It sounds like they're barking up the same tree I am with my patients."
Schools roll out their menus
Last Monday, aromas of fresh basil, basmati rice and baked mushrooms filled the Hopkins High School kitchen, as workers made lunch for 1,000 teachers and administrators. Cook Paul Kapala topped trays of grilled chicken with brilliantly red roasted peppers, feta and basil, and extended services manager Anne Ferreira consulted a well-thumbed cookbook, "Mediterranean Food of the Sun," which inspired several dishes on the menu.
Students in the district of 7,200 won't see much change in their lunchrooms on Tuesday, said Barb Mechura, the district's director of Student Nutrition Services. For the past several years, Hopkins has been committed to "scratch cooking." Nutrition directors find great dishes and hand them to professional chefs like Kapala, who adapt the recipes to feed thousands of students. The chopping, mixing and cooking are done daily in nine school kitchens, often with local ingredients.
Hopkins' experience shows that students are more likely to buy in if they are involved in the process, Mechura said. She recalled the day she introduced chili, which can be loaded up with veggies.
"We had to beg kids to take a bite of it, and there were lots of inappropriate comments," she said. "But just last winter, I was in the same serving line area and there were kids coming in, and they were jumping up and down and saying, 'Oh, yay! It's chili today!'"
Changes will be more noticeable elsewhere.
For decades, all of the Minneapolis school District's cooking has taken place at the Nutrition Center in north Minneapolis. Hot and cold items are precooked and prepackaged.
"The biggest issue is that when you package everything in a TV dinner, that's what you get," said Bertrand Weber, who took over as Minneapolis' director of culinary and nutrition services in January.
Starting this year, Weber's staff is installing fresh fruit and vegetable bars in every cafeteria. Two elementary schools that still have their own kitchens now will reheat bulk foods separately and serve portions on trays. Cooks are preparing meals from scratch in all the high schools. The changes have resulted in 31 new positions; some are new hires, and others have shifted from packaging jobs to cooking.
Weber says the changes are long overdue. "The biggest resistance I've always had were adults saying, 'Kids won't eat that,'" he said. "Kids will eat the food if it's presented well, if it tastes good and if we keep reinforcing and keep doing it over and over again."
But will it work?
Families visiting the Minnesota State Fair last week were largely supportive of the changes.
"Schools never should have been in the business of teaching unhealthy habits," said Tim Rust of Glenwood, father of a high school senior. "It's just a lack of common sense, and I'm glad to see it going in a different direction."
Charlie Marble, a fifth-grader at Lake Marion Elementary School in Lakeville, noted that kids at his school like to eat fruit, though some try to take seconds of dessert.
James Shelton III, a St. Paul third-grader, wasn't sure.
"I think there's enough fruits and vegetables," he said. With some prompting from his dad, James Shelton Jr., he admitted that he'd like to see more strawberries and pineapple.
The elder Shelton was among a few adults who worried that the produce will end up in the garbage. "When you waste food, it's like wasting money," he said. "But they've got to try it."
The program has other skeptics. Work by Food and Nutrition Services in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools has been recognized for excellence. Coordinator Wendy Knight understands about giving students options and has seen attractive displays entice kids to try new foods. But she worries that portions are too small for active teens.
"I support the program; I just feel that kids need more calories than I think what this is allowing them," she said. "Right now I've got some of them scavenging the lunchrooms after lunch because they're hungry. ... Kids need calories, and kids need good protein sources, and they're going to be looking at their burger and thinking, 'Where's the beef?'"
From food to phys ed
Beyond the lunchroom, students will need to meet the very general goals for physical competence and active lifestyle, as set out by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education and outlined by the state Department of Education. Students must take physical education yearly through eighth grade; school districts will continue to set their own high school requirements.
This fall, the department will release "Quality Recess Guidelines" to help students make the best use of active time. The optional guidelines will include suggestions that students take a 20-minute activity break, daily, before lunch if possible. It also suggests the use of group games.
In Loy's mind, the nutrition and activity are linked.
"If you attend to making sure that kids have good, nutritious food, or that they have breaks throughout the school day to get physically active, then you're not spending so much time dealing with disciplinary issues," she said. "The kids are more focused and their brains are more primed to learn."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409