June 11: Food fight: School lunches get political

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2014 - 4:14 PM

Local districts support new lunch regulations but say they’ve been challenging and expensive to implement.

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Under federal regulations, students are required to take a half cup of either fruits or vegetables with their school lunch. Wendy Knight, food service coordinator in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, worries the regulation will lead to waste and increased costs.

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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.

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