School programs offer healthier lunch choices

CAPE GIRARDEAU (AP) — When Lisa Elfrink replaced fried french fries with baked spuds in Cape Girardeau School District’s cafeterias, it went over about as well with most students as trading pizza for liver and onions.

“They aren’t happy with me that we took the fryers out,” Elfrink, the district’s nutrition services coordinator, told the Cape Girardeau School Board this week. “We have baked french fries, but they’re just not quite as good” to the students.

School nutrition programs nationwide are bracing for many menu changes ahead; they just don’t know exactly when new federal dietary guidelines will be implemented and just how costly they will be.

One thing is clear: Many of the provisions in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, signed into law late last year, are going over as well as baked sweet potato fries in Cape Girardeau lunch rooms — with everyone from school districts to the dairy industry weighing in with complaints. Concerns about financial impact, from the bottom line of producers to the costs of implementing the act’s changes, could ultimately influence what the final guidelines look like.’’

Nutrition bill

The act, commonly referred to as the child nutrition reauthorization bill, was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in December following more than two years of study, lobbying and political wrangling. It reauthorizes child nutrition programs for five years and includes $4.5 billion in new funding for new programs over 10 years.

At its core it is a campaign to expand the reach of school breakfast and lunch programs, while in some cases drastically changing the menu — cutting portions, calories and fat, and boosting fruits and vegetables in a battle against a national childhood obesity epidemic. More than 31 million students participate in the nation’s school lunch programs.

The USDA recently wrapped up a public comment period on the act, and the agency reportedly was inundated with letters and calls. Elfrink said her letter alone was five pages.

The potato industry has lobbied against the portion of the USDA guidelines that limit the serving of potatoes to one cup per week. The dairy industry says the act’s mandate that skim milk be the basis of all flavored milks, such as the most popular chocolate milk, would be financially disastrous.

“Kids are not going to drink milk if it doesn’t taste good,” said Larry Purdom, a dairy farmer and chairman of the Missouri Dairy Association. “We think it’s better for them to drink something maybe with a little more sugar in it than drinking nothing, and then they go home and drink soda pop instead.”

With so many voices entering into the discussion — many with a vested interest — school nutrition coordinators are left wondering just what the final Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act will look like. The final rule isn’t expected to print until the winter of 2012.

“It may be July of next year before we see anything out of this,” Elfrink said.

In effect

Southeast Missouri’s public schools aren’t waiting. Many are anticipating the nutrition changes ahead, as much as they can. Cape Girardeau’s public schools in recent years have made the switch to whole-grain breads and pastas, introduced more fruits, cut out the fried foods and are in the process of reducing portions. The Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, for now, remain.

The Jackson School District has boosted fruits and vegetable offerings, changed to whole-grain menu items, provides water in all school cafeterias and has removed all vending machines, save a milk machine at the high school.

“We removed all snack food eight years ago from the food service line. Everything we offer is a nutritious selection,” said Liz Aufdenberg, Jackson’s food services director. “We’re close to where we need to follow the guidelines.”

Many districts are a long way from meeting the rules as currently written, however, and getting there could be costly.

Increased funding

The child nutrition act would increase federal funding by about 6 cents per meal, which now costs around $2.80 to make. By its own estimates, the USDA says it could cost 50 cents more per meal to implement all the changes, leaving some districts in a huge financial bind. With food costs expected to rise 12 percent in the next academic year, the funding question looms even larger.

The Cape Girardeau School District’s nutrition program feeds more than 4,000 children every day. Participation rates average 80 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 59 percent. Cape Girardeau’s free and reduced lunch program, serving about 63 percent of students, exceeds state and national averages.

Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of the not-for-profit Healthy Schools Campaign, said the advocacy group sees many positives in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, but it too shares concerns about the resources question. Changing menus and minds, Davis said, will take more than government regulations; it will require community buy-in.

For now, public school districts like Cape Girardeau’s, are analyzing calories, fats and vitamins and beginning the campaign to win over the taste buds of typically finicky patrons. Elfrink says that starts early. Still, she’s not ready to give up on one goody.

“I’m going to leave our Otis Spunkmeyer cookies until they tell me I can’t have them anymore,” she said.

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