When one hears the words “school lunch,” memories of rubbery chicken nuggets, canned vegetables and unappetizing pizza typically come to mind.
But during the last several years, school lunches have received a major overhaul due to changing beliefs about nutrition and federal requirements.
In 2012, the federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act mandated that students take one-half cup of fruits/vegetables with their lunch for it to be counted as a reimbursable meal. The school district switched to the “My Plate,” format, which encourages making half the plate fruit and vegetable based.
“I always admire how good the trays look with the fruits and veggies included as part of the meal,” said Sarah Sterling, nutrition services director for the Camas School District. “It gives the plate a better eye appeal.”
Mark Jasper, nutrition director for the Washougal School District, echoed those sentiments.
“We promote the salad bars that we offer with the lunch price and offer ‘favorite’ items that are a big hit with students,” he said.
The USDA also included regulations on the variety of vegetables to be offered each week in the categories of dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy and other. Weekly minimum calorie amounts must be met by age group. Lower sodium levels will be included this fall.
At the elementary school level, breakfast for lunch is popular, while ‘build to order’ options for students in middle and high school score a big hit.
“We also promote limited time offers, special menu days, lucky tray days and advertise that (school lunch) is a cost effective option for parents,” Sterling said.
In addition to the fruit and vegetable requirement, the districts have also switched to whole grain bread, pizza crust, tortillas, brown rice and some pastas, as well as eliminated deep frying.
However, the healthy switch has not been welcomed by all. Both Camas and Washougal experienced a decline in participation when the fruit and vegetable requirement was rolled out last year. Both nutrition directors say that has slowly inched up by tweaking the menus, educating students about the changes and with the federal government relaxing some of the restrictions, such as the use of whole grain pasta.
“It doesn’t always hold up with good flavor and quality on the service line,” noted Sterling.
“Last year was very challenging for the program,” Jasper said. “It is hard to change society and people’s flavor profiles. Change is tough for everyone, especially little children and their lunch.”
When there is a new item at lunch, the nutrition directors offer samples. That way, students can try it without having to commit to that being their lunch.
New changes on the horizon include requiring whole grains in breakfast and snack items as well as lunches.
“It affects vending, student stores, fundraisers — all food sold or offered in school from midnight to 30 minutes after the end of the school day,” Sterling said.