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A year-end report card on school cafeterias: Did they make the grade for improved nutrition?

(BPT) - The 2012-2013 school year brought a new curriculum to school cafeterias across the United States. For most of the country’s 17,000 school districts, it was an accelerated class, requiring the complete revision of school menus, from ingredients to food pairings to recipes, to meet the new USDA nutrition guidelines.    

Have school cafeterias made the grade? Many health experts say yes, they’ve earned an “A” for their accomplishments.    

The new nutrition guidelines require schools to offer an increased variety of fruits and vegetables every day of the week – many of them nutrient-rich dark green, red or orange varieties. At least half the grains served need to be whole grain-rich foods, and milk must be fat-free or low-fat. In addition, there is a greater focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fats and sodium, and an adjustment of calories served based on the age of the children.

“So many good things are happening inside schools, because of these new standards and also because there’s a commitment by a growing number of people to serve kids healthful foods at school,” says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant who works with schools in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

According to Moores, it takes not only food service directors to create a great cafeteria, it takes a team of people including a school’s administration, food suppliers and even local farmers. “It’s worth every cent we invest in delivering healthful food. Eating well supports better brain power,” she says.

School foodservice directors have developed creative ways to help students embrace the new menus. Lunch is an important and nutritious meal during students’ busy school days, and so it was important that new foods were both flavorful and appealing.

An essential element of the process has been education – students and their families needed to understand what the changes were and why they were being made. This included community open houses with families for menu sampling, written communications sent home or available online, fun and informative cafeteria signage, and cafeteria food tastings. It has been an ongoing conversation with students throughout the year.

Incorporating more vegetables and whole grains has been an objective for all schools. Brenda Padilla, nutrition services manager for Sacramento City Unified School District, is responsible for more than 40,000 meals a day. Through menu testing, Padilla learned that her students would choose julienned red, green and yellow peppers, helping to meet the new vegetable requirements. The peppers could be used in the salad bar that’s offered in each of her schools as well as in the signature house salad she developed, available at every register. 

At most Sacramento area high schools, students can choose grilled peppers and other vegetables, prepared on outdoor grills. “We’ve piloted a fajita grill concept this year, using whole grain tortillas. It’s a great way to incorporate a variety of grilled vegetables,” Padilla says. Students here echo preferences heard across the country for increased seasonings and spice, making fajitas a great option.

Familiar foods are still available in lunch lines across the country. Foodservice directors have discovered kid-friendly whole grain-rich favorites like pizza that meet the new guidelines. For instance, Big Daddy’s (R) 51 percent whole grain cheese pizza from Schwan’s Food Service is a great platform for providing high quality protein, calcium, potassium and fiber, with only 310 calories. Weekly menus that blend new and familiar flavor options, all meeting the new guidelines, have helped students adapt to the new offerings.

And while schools embraced the changes, there were challenges as well. Soon after school was underway in the fall, foodservice directors began to hear from high school students that they were feeling hungry. The USDA responded by lifting the limits for proteins and breads for the balance of the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, giving schools the opportunity to increase the serving portions for some of its nutrient-rich items.  

So as the school year comes to a close, high marks are awarded to school cafeterias and foodservice directors for the implementation of these new guidelines and an ongoing commitment to providing great nutrition.

“These new guidelines provide a wonderful opportunity to showcase what we can offer to our students in our communities,” says Padilla.

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