By Kim Walter -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Parents can expect to see a few changes in school lunches this year, as new federal requirements were established through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
In the past, students had the option to include a fruit or vegetable with lunch, but now a serving of fruit or vegetables is required. There used to be no limit to the amount of protein and grains that students could consume each week. Now, new minimums and maximums have been set, so most students will see smaller portion sizes in both of those categories.
Additionally, 50 percent of grains offered have to be whole grains, and by 2014 that will increase to 100 percent. The milk that comes with lunch will either be 1 percent low fat or fat free. Flavored milk will still be offered, but it has to be fat free.
While requirements will be the same throughout the state, some schools have more catching up to do than others.
SueAnn Fox, Food Service Coordinator for Warren County Public Schools, said the district has already implemented some of the changes, so students and parents alike shouldn't be too surprised.
"I think the biggest change that students will notice is that a fruit or veggie is required now," Fox said. Cashiers at the end of the lunch line will make sure that students have one of the components on their plate, she added.
Warren County has already made the change in milk requirements, and has offered 40 percent whole grains, so there won't be a huge shift in what students will see on the menu. However, Fox said that before it was hard to produce enough bread to meet requirements, but now with the maximum being in place "it's like a complete 180."
"Since the amount of required protein is being reduced, we'll try to go with a bit higher quality," Fox said. Portion sizes vary between grades kindergarten through fifth, sixth through eighth and ninth through 12th, which adds another level of complication for Warren County, since eighth graders are in the high schools. "We're still trying to figure out how to work that," she said.
School lunch prices will go up by 5 cents at the elementary level, and by 10 cents at the secondary level in Warren County.
"We are so far below what is expected as far as what we charge for lunch," Fox said. Over the next few years, schools will have to raise prices to meet the desired cost of $2.50.
"It's really all a balancing act of what kids want, what they'll take, and then what they actually eat," she explained. "It doesn't do any good if the food ends up in the trash."
Fox said she plans to push communication between the schools and parents to address any concerns with the school lunch changes. Increased signage and learning materials will be throughout the schools to get students thinking about what makes a healthy lunch, she said.
"I think kids are making better choices," she said. "It's not about their weight or being a certain number...it's about being healthy."
Shenandoah County Public Schools are not planning a price increase for this year, according to Food Services Supervisor Beverly Polk, but similar portion adjustments will take place in the county to get up to regulation.
"This will take time, it won't happen over night," she said of the new requirements.
The schools make a lot of their food from scratch, Polk said, and have been pushing daily intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in recent years.
Frederick County Public Schools have also slowly implemented changes to meet the new meal requirements.
"We're trying to minimize the noticeable changes to students through careful menu planning," said Jennifer White, supervisor of School Nutrition Services.
"We've found that the changes are perceived better by kids when we ask for their input on the food," she said. One possible new menu item that coincides with the grain requirement is whole grain bread in the shape of a Goldfish, "to make it more kid friendly."
The county plans to increase lunch prices by 10 cents in all grade levels, White said.