The Redwood Valley school district, parents, and students work with the new school lunch rules where they must, and around them the rest of the time.
"When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home."
—First Lady Michelle Obama, introducing new school lunch standards earlier this year.
“I don’t think parents and students realize all the new regulations we have to deal with, and they get frustrated with us. The amount of food I have to prepare is up, but there’s a lot more wasted, too.”
Redwood Valley High School cafeteria worker Lisa Zachariason this week.
In January, the United States Department of Agriculture released the first revisions of the school lunch program in 15 years, in large part as a response to the growing obesity epidemic.
Students got their first taste of the new federal guidelines for school lunches when they returned to school this fall.
What sort of regulations do cafeteria workers and students have to deal with now?
“We have to balance the colors we serve. We have to meet the orange requirement, the green requirement....” said Zacharison. “On taco days we can’t use the regular iceberg lettuce — we have to use romaine, which is a dark green.”
“We were able to bring back a broccoli salad today that was popular, although we had to find a new recipe that has no fat,” said RVHS cafeteria worker Laurie Milbrandt.
“The normal school pizza doesn’t meet the new regulations. It uses the wrong kind of bread. We have to serve whole grains with every meal.
“We have to watch calories and fat intake, and the government can audit us at any time. It’s not just us — the manufacturers have to meet the new guidelines, too.”
Schools are now obligated to serve each student one cup of potato a week — whether the student wants it or not.
As a side dish, federal rules require each lunch include half a cup of fruits and vegetables per day for elementary students, three quarters cup for students in grades six through eight, and a full cup for high-school students.
Requiring students to take food they refuse to eat leads to increased expense and waste, as could be expected.
The new regulations increase servings of grain, fruits and vegetables, while dialing back on sodium, fat and carbs. In addition, per meal calorie limits have been imposed, a first in the program’s history.
Today’s younger students get a plate of 650 calories, while high school students are limited to 850 calories.
The limits must be adhered to without exception or the school faces losing its meal federal reimbursement.
If there is one area of persistent, wide-spread disgruntlement among students, parents and school staff, it is that portions must be consistently sized whether served to a six foot, 200-pound athlete or a 120-pound professional student.
Students are no longer allowed to return for a second burger, nor fill up on the likes of bread or rice. Only fruits and vegetables are offered without limit.
And yet to this loud refrain of “We’re still hungry!” the USDA has stood firm, giving students the option of filling up on no-limit fruits and vegetables, bringing additional food from home, or purchasing offerings on or off campus, if permitted.
The Redwood Valley school district gets around the portion and ingredient regulations with the use of an ala carte section.
Students willing and able to reach into their wallets and pay directly can choose from a wider variety of foods, and aren’t limited in serving size.
Because students pay out-of-pocket, the ala carte section isn’t subject to the regulations that come with government funding.
A related service is a buffet line where students can serve themselves.
“For a $4.25 flat fee, students can take a one-time trip through, and athletes and other big eaters can eat all they want,” said Milbrandt.
Redwood Valley High and Middle Schools serve over 500 students on a typical day. How are the students reacting to the new meal regime?
“They’re getting better with it,” said Milbrandt, watching students line up at the ala carte line.
In other news, the new regulations for school breakfasts will begin to phase in next year....