Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I Am A Lunch Lady

I write the menus for our school system.  I am a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Education.  I mention that up front for two reasons-I know how to plan a healthy meal, how to prepare it in a healthy way, and how to make recipe substitutions to make it even healthier.  And I know how to teach our staff how to understand and implement complicated federal regulations, even as they-the regulations-change year to year.

Last week, I spent two work days pouring over all the recipes that make up our four week high school cycle menu, attempting to cut any amount of sodium to get our weekly sodium levels into compliance with limits that take effect July 1.  We cut salt shakers, salt packets, and added salt years ago.  Now I was looking for no salt added or low sodium canned products and lower sodium choices for other ingredients in our recipes.  I had many challenges

As we transitioned to more entrée and side salads and fresh veggies with dip over the past few years, we selected low fat dips and dressings.  At the time, total fat was a nutrient we tracked for federal and state compliance.  Now we don't even track that, which is okay, due to positive changes like: 
  • many products have become fat modified
  • schools carefully control portions of high cost, center of plate meat or meat alternate items
  • fryers are no longer in most schools
So, total fat levels are not a problem-most schools are well under 30% of total calories. 

However, when manufacturers cut the fat they often raise the sodium, attempting to carefully merge texture, flavor and kid's palates.  Many products available to school systems are not yet sodium modified to the low levels we will be required to offer.  The pre-cooked diced chicken we get from USDA is very high in sodium.  One side salad with two tablespoons of dressing can throw us over our daily limit. Our sodium levels actually come out lower in our nutrient analysis program if I sub low sodium canned veggies for fresh side salads.  We lost the forest for the trees, looking at sodium grams rather than whole, fresh foods.

What's a kid favorite?  Cheese.  We add it to pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads, refried beans and more.  Sometimes it is just as a garnish, to make it more kid friendly.  But cheese is high in sodium so I was cutting the cheese in recipes.

Two  years ago, I spent days counting whether our breads and buns were equal to 1.5, 1.75 or 2 grain servings, as defined by the National School Lunch Program, based on the grams of grains per serving.  It mattered not whether they were whole grains, just if they were too much grains.  At the time we had maximum grain limits on what we could serve.  Again, we had lost the forest for the trees.  We weren't transitioning to tasty (to kids) whole grains, we were worried if a hamburger bun counted as 1.5 or 2 grains.  And remember, folks like me, all over the nation, in every school district, were spending days doing this.  Then, mid school year, the grain maximums were "relaxed" (fed speak for oops), per federal regulation change.  We got our forest back and could move on to more important things.

Ah, but this year, we have to transition to 100% whole grains, meaning EVERY bun, roll, bread, wrap, cereal, rice or grain we serve must contain at least 51% whole grains.  Show me how many families are doing this at home?  This is not moderate.  My Plate says "make half your grains whole grains".  I can work with that.

We also had meat/meat alternate maximums.  I was taking the cheese off our cheeseburgers to meet the meat maximums, despite the fact that we have to place our cheese orders with USDA about two years before the year of service, which was before the regulations changed.  No cheese burgers went over really well with the students.  Remember, local school meal programs are a self sufficient business with customers.  They typically receive no local funding and must rely on federal and state reimbursement for free and reduced meals and income from paid meals (customers) and a la carte sales.  (Note:  limits on a la carte sales kick in this summer too, but that is a whole other blog post, or two).  Customers like cheeseburgers.

By the way, meat maximums were "relaxed" too.  It is great that the feds are responding to school feedback, but getting it right - and realistic - from the start would also be great.

Solutions?

1.  Give manufacturers time to reformulate before implementation dates of federal regulations.  This takes years and millions of dollars. Do you have any idea how they scrambled to make 1 or 1.5 grain hamburger buns and dinner rolls, before the maximums were relaxed and we could go back, mid school year, to regular sized 2 grain buns?  Supply chains too are not always able to respond quickly.

2.  Follow reasonable, moderate national food guidance, such as the Dietary Guidelines.  Balance, variety and moderation. Yes, school meal programs can be a model for families, but not if they go out of business or the food goes in the trash.

3.  Keep politics out of school meal nutrition criteriaIt should be science based, not partisan based.

4.  Pilot proposed regulatory changes in real school districts - large, small, high free and reduced rates and low free and reduced rates, rural and suburban and urban. 

5.  Slow down.  Meal pattern changes for both the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, strict sodium limits, whole grain initiatives, new certification reviews, a la carte and fundraiser limits, professional standards regulations, and mandatory Wellness Policy updates have our heads spinning at the local level.

Note:  I say I am a lunch lady with the utmost fondness for the dedicated, kid loving people with whom I work.  That title has no negative connotations for me.

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