Serving Up a Healthy Lunch for NJ Schoolkids

Linda Thrasybule, Melissa Beveridge | September 18, 2012 | Education
Forget fried and fatty foods, kids are lining up for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables mandated by new federal guidelines

school lunch
The line at Monument Elementary School’s cafeteria was long, but rather than waiting to be served a typical lunch of processed, high-fat food, the students were waiting to grab their lunch from the school’s new salad bar.

“I was surprised to see that the kids preferred the fruits and vegetables over the processed food,” said Bernadette Trapp, the school’s principal. “I thought we would have problems getting them to eat it, but they seem willing to try it.”

Those eager kids are the beneficiaries of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which went into effect at the start of the 2012 school year.

Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law by President Obama, the law requires the USDA to update the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) according set out in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans — updated and released in January of 2011

This is the first time the USDA has revamped the guidelines for school lunches in 15 years.

The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program administered by state agencies in public and nonprofit private schools. It offers low-cost or free lunches to schools that follow the new guidelines. Schools may choose to opt out, but they forfeit cash reimbursements for meals or USDA assistance. The majority of schools in the U.S. and in New Jersey participate in the program.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides nutritional guidance to “promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity.” The guidelines recommend that Americans consume fewer calories, increase their physical activity, and consume healthier foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy, while limiting trans fats, saturated fats, and added sugars.

Rising Concern Over Childhood Obesity

The passing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 reflects the nation’s growing concern over the rise in childhood obesity and Type II Diabetes in children.

It’s a problem that plagues the students at Monument Elementary School.

In Trenton alone, about 50 percent of children ages 6 to 18 years are overweight or obese, according to the New Jersey Childhood Obesity Survey conducted by Rutgers Center for State Health Policy.

To be considered overweight, adolescents and children must be greater or equal to the 85th percentile for BMI (Body Mass Index) by age and sex. Obese adolescents and children must be greater or equal to the 95th percentile for BMI-for-Age.

The statistics aren’t any better for New Jersey overall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 14.2 percent of adolescents in grades nine through 12 were overweight and 10.3 percent were obese. In children aged two to five years, 17 percent were overweight and 17.3 percent were obese.

By regulating the NSLP and serving more nutritious food to children in all grades, the USDA hopes that participating schools will be the foundation for reversing the childhood obesity trend.

Rose Tricario, director of the division of food and nutrition for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, is equally clear about this objective.

“We hope the things they learn about healthy eating in school will help them to one day become healthy active adults,” she said.

Updating State Nutrition Policy

New Jersey most recently updated its nutrition policy in 2007. The state was ahead of the curve, limiting total fat to 8 grams per serving; saturated fat to 2 grams per serving; and banning any food that lists sugar as the first ingredient. The new USDA regulations will update the state’s nutrition policy again for this school year.

The NSLP is very specific about tailoring its recommendations to all schoolchildren. For example, the new guidelines specify caloric and sodium limits for each grade group (K-5, 6-8, 9-12).
For the 2012-2013 school year, the NSLP focused on increasing the amount of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains while setting lower limits on saturated fat, trans fat (which is now banned from all school foods), and sodium levels (which will reach its goal of a 53 percent reduction in the 2022-2023 school year). The new requirements focus on five main meal components: fruit, vegetables, grains, meat or a meat substitute, and milk.

Students in each grade group have a required maximum and minimum daily and weekly calorie intake. For example, students in K-5 have a minimum daily intake of 550 calories and a maximum of 650 calories. Standards are also set for the type of grains used (in 2012-2013 half of all grains must be whole grain and by 2014-2015 all grains must be whole grain); the type of vegetables served (during the lunch week food from the five subgroups of dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy, and other must be available); and milk (as of 2012-2013 only 1 percent unflavored, fat-free unflavored, or fat-free flavored) will be available as a serving.

The NSLP is funded through the federal government but it is up to state and local authorities to plan their menus. The USDA does supply menu-planning guides.

Schools Get Help to Convert Kitchens

But planning menus and actually getting healthy meal on the lunch table can run into unexpected difficulties, as Monument’s Trapp can attest.

“The school wasn’t designed with a cooking kitchen, and in order have a salad bar, we had to have a place to wash and prepare the vegetables,” said Trapp.

With the help of a grant provided by the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids, they were able to put in new plumbing and electricity for a fully operational kitchen.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture and other state and local agencies are also lending a hand, offering workshops and webinars throughout the state.

“We’re out there giving them the resources to make this a success,” Tricario said.

What’s more, the USDA will provide technical training and assistance to help prepare schools for the change, as well as additional nutrition education programs.

There’s also financial component encouraging schools to participate in the NSLP.

Schools that are certified to be in compliance with the updated meal program will receive an additional six cents for each lunch. For example, a school will receive an average of $2.86 per free lunch that is given. If the lunch is in compliant with the new rules, it will receive an additional six cents, for a total of $2.92 for every free lunch given to students. This extra funding is an incentive for schools to implement the program and follow the guidelines despite financial obstacles.

Not only does the new law require updated standards for the NSLP, but it also establishes national nutrition standards for all food that is sold and served at any point during the school day on school grounds (approved fundraisers are exempted).

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 plans to update the breakfast program for the school year of 2013-2014 and provide grant assistance to states that wish to implement nutrition education and obesity prevention programs.