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USDA rules bring more veggies, fewer calories to school lunches

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Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012 11:52 pm

FAIRBANKS — When the new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for the National Student Lunch Program standards came out in January 2012 for the current school year, Amy Rouse, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Nutrition Services Director, didn’t panic.

“We were doing a lot of the initiatives already,” Rouse said. “The huge change for us was how we plan our menu.”

The new guidelines, encompassed in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act require set calorie limits, increased daily servings of fruits and vegetables, adding more whole grains and reductions of saturated fat and sodium.

If the district doesn’t comply, it risks not qualifying for the National School Lunch Program federal assistance.

Color, age-appropriate calorie menus, nutrients and taste must all be taken into consideration when planning menus under the new federal requirements, House said.

“The challenge for us was we had to be more conscious of the colors of the vegetables we served. We have weekly minimums on portion sizes of red/orange vegetables like, tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes and dark green vegetables, like collards, romaine, spinach and broccoli,” Rouse explained.

There are also weekly requirements for legumes including green, red and black beans, and starchy vegetables like white potatoes (1/2 cup per week), green peas and whole kernel corn.”

During the 21 school days of October, the Nutrition Center delivered 100,832 lunches around the district with a daily average of 4,775 lunches, as well as 32,227 breakfasts meals to 32 school sites around the district.

Before the new regulations, meal planning was based on nutrient content and that was how we thought about menus and how we created them,” Rouse said.

The new guidelines started out being more time consuming, because of the thought process changes.

“The biggest change is the doubling of the fruit requirement from a 1/4 cup to a half cup of fruit, and next year we will be offering one cup,” Rouse said.

Another big challenge was the food packaging to accommodate the guidelines.

“We had to make sure the food amounts fit in the available packaging,” she said.

“We try to give the children an opportunity to try something they may not get at home such as blueberries, kiwi or black beans,” she said. “Fresh plums were a huge hit with the kids.”

A pilot program also is underway to include locally grown food. To date, Delta barley is being added to whole wheat grains for breads and buns, and locally-grown micro greens and cabbage have been on school menus.

To keep it all together, the center faithfully fills out a spread sheet created by the USDA, and enters all food items to meet the weekly requirements.

“We’re the Excel spread sheet queens,” Rouse said.

The program is self-monitoring. “We send the spread sheets to the state and they make sure we are in compliance,” said Rouse who expects an on-site inspection after the new year.

Approximately 35 percent of school district students are eligible for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs, Rouse said.

The planning, preparation and delivery of approximately thousands of meals across the borough each school day is a highly-synchronized endeavor with deliveries heading out the Richardson Highway as early as 5:30 a.m.

Nutrition Services, a state of the art facility, was opened in 2009 and is located in the railroad industrial area. Previously, the kitchen was located at Eielson Schools, and the administration and warehouse in two different Fairbanks locations.

With Fairbanks being at the terminus of the food delivery chain, orchestrating the massive movement of food from outside of Alaska, is done far in advance. Bulk food is ordered six weeks in advance, save milk and produce which arrives every two weeks.

Next year Rouse anticipates changes in the breakfast menu with more to come.

“Every day we are getting better and the kids are feeling better with the changes,” Rouse said.

•••

Federal updates:

Following the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated the National Student Lunch Program’s pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new program went into effect at the beginning of this school year.

The new meal pattern increases the amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in school menus, and sets specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals for elementary (K-5), middle (6-8) and high school (9-12) students. The nutrition plan also calls for gradual reductions in the sodium content of school meals during upcoming school years.

• In 2011, the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program, provided nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day in more than 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.

• In Alaska approximately 50,000 school lunches are served daily at 571 locations through the Child Care Feeding Program and the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Meals are served to all children based on a student’s household eligibility for free, reduced-price and paid meals.

• To qualify in Alaska the following income guidelines are applicable: For a two person household annual income before taxes must not exceed $35,002; three person household, $44,160; four person household, $53,317; five person household, $62,475; six person household, $71,632; seven person household, $80,790; eight person household, $89,947. For larger households, add $9,158 for each additional person in the home.

• To find out more about the school lunch program, and how to apply online for free and reduced meals, visit www.k12northstar.org/departments/nutrition.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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