New federal legislation governing the content of school meals will affect Troup County schools, officials said.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed the USDA to make changes to the nutritional guidelines schools use for serving meals to students. Starting this year, students are expected to get more fruits and vegetables and less salt and meat.
It includes “an increase in fruits and vegetables, particularly the dark green and orange, healthier-style vegetables, fresh fruits and more more whole grain, beans and legumes, low-fat dairy and low-fat meat options as well,” said Alana Jones, Troup County schools nutrition director. “What’s great for us is that Troup County schools have been progressing toward this the last three years or so, so the changes aren’t that drastic for us.”
What is a big change, Jones said, is that schools will serve bigger portions of fresh and and healthier options. Also, every meal served is now required to include fresh fruits or vegetables.
“In the past, the student could just choose a cheeseburger and milk, and that was a reimbursement meal,” Jones said. “Now the student will have to add a fruit or vegetable.”
Meals also will begin reducing the amount of sodium included over the course of the next three years. This will mean food service workers making more items from scratch to cut down on sodium, which will increase preparation time, Jones said.
“For instance, going from a pre-made roll to a whole-grain roll made from scratch. With the pre-made, you just take it out of the package and warm it, but with the whole-grain roll, you’re gonna have to mix all the ingredients, let it rise, put it in a proofer, let it rise some more, and then bake it,” Jones said. “So, yeah, it definitely is going to increase the time it takes to make some of these foods.”
Kevin Niemann, general manager for Sodexo, which contracts with the school system to provide food service, said that employees will likely have to start earlier and the cost of getting fresh fruits and vegetables required will increase as well. Every year, though, the USDA increases its reimbursement index to help offset the costs, but Troup County is still low for the price charged for meals according to USDA guidelines, Niemann said, but said more students buying meals helps support the program.
“Actually, our meal counts are up, year over year … especially in our secondary schools, which is where I thought we’d see a challenge,” Niemann said. “Really, in the elementary schools, the kids take the fruits and vegetables pretty much, but when they get to the secondary, they just want that piece of pizza and some milk, but now they have to have a vegetable with it.”
About 70 percent of students buy school lunches, and almost 50 percent get school breakfasts, Niemann said. The amount of students in middle and high schools taking school lunch increased 8 percent in a year.
However, school lunch prices did increase about 10 cents this school year, which officials said was due to USDA requirements for reimbursement.
Jones felt the legislation was overall a good move.
“As a dietitian, I think it’s the right thing to do for kids,” Jones said, noting about one-third of children are classified as overweight or obese, usually because they eat more calories than they burn. “They eat a high level for too much time in front of the TV or Xbox, and we have to combat that. That’s what this legalisation is setup for, to combat childhood obesity.”
Jones added that a new service the school system offers this year for parents to pay for their children’s meals is prepayment online with Paypams parent account management system, which can be accessed at paypams.com. The site also allows parents to see when their children buy meals and any additional meal or snack purchases they make.