Healthier school lunches have students seeing green

School lunch offerings will have students from kindergarten through high school seeing green this school year nationwide. Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale and other green vegetables like cucumbers peas and broccoli are part of healthier meals being served in school cafeterias because of stringent new federal nutrition standards now in effect.

What kids won’t see while moving through the lunch line is high fat and fried foods, rich, sugar-laden desserts, or whole milk. The requirements, laid out in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, had to be in place by July 1, 2012 for schools to qualify for federal meal reimbursements.

The new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards focus on having students obtain calories and nutrients from a wider variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, nutritious amounts of protein in meat or meat alternatives and only fat-free or 1 percent milk. The guidelines promote meals made up of foods from each of the major food groups provided in the proper serving sizes for a student’s age and activity level.

Will the kids eat healthier lunches?

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Nutri-Serve Food Management based in Burlington, N.J. runs school lunch programs for public and private school districts in Central and Southern New Jersey. “Feedback from the students so far has been very positive,” Norman Horn, Director of Sales and Marketing at Nutri-Serve, said. “It’s even better than we expected. Students seem to have adjusted well to the changes. The number of meals served has not dropped off at all.”

Horn says instituting the changes has been a complex process requiring food suppliers to revise recipes, food service managers to recalculate how much food they order and school districts to advise students and parents of the changes. Anne Marie Foley, food manager for a kindergarten through fourth grade school, says one challenge is the weekly limit on grains, which amounts to nine ounces in her students’ grade category. “A slice of whole wheat bread has about one ounce of grain, so one sandwich per day, for example, is too much in a 5-day week,” Foley said. “There’s also a one ounce per day minimum, so we can’t just skip a day.” Foley adds that they are working with distributors to possibly use grains with lower weights.

For now, half of grains served must be whole grain rich and by the 2014-15 school year, all grains served must be whole grain rich. Whole grain means that it includes all parts of the grain kernel. “We’ve already changed more than 90 percent of our breads, rolls, wraps and even the crackers that are served with the salads to align with the whole grain requirement,” Horn said.

Students will be required to take at least one fruit or vegetable serving each day but can opt for more. Vegetables from five different sub-groups including dark green vegetables; red/orange vegetables; beans or peas; starchy choices like corn or potatoes or other veggies like cabbage and cucumbers, must be represented weekly. Fruits also have daily and weekly minimums and may be fresh, canned, dried or in juice form. Unsweetened frozen fruit is an option for this year only.

Protein meal components include meat, poultry, seafood, cheese, eggs, tofu, beans, yogurt, nuts and seeds. The only milk choices allowed are 1percent unflavored or fat free flavored or unflavored.Guidelines for what constitutes a serving apply to all food groups.

What’s for lunch?

A typical lunch, plucked from a monthly menu for grades one through four in the Mount Laurel school district, includes a Philly cheese-steak on a whole grain torpedo roll; sweet potato fries; mixed salad greens; a mixed fruit medley and low fat milk. “Our goal has always been to have students eat a well balanced lunch, Stella Crawford, Director of Food Services for Mount Laurel schools, said. “We encourage students to take more fruits and vegetables with their meal. We are up for the challenge.”

Christine Mann of Medford, mother of three boys, says she’s glad that lunches are being reformed. “My middle guy says the food is good, but my oldest says he hates all the whole wheat stuff,” Mann said.

“Quite frankly you can pack a healthy lunch or purchase one, but that doesn’t mean kids will eat the most nutritional aspects of it,” Kelly Maguire said. Her two sons also attend school in Medford.

Food manager Foley reports that they walk around the cafeteria to monitor what kids are eating or not eating, and encourage them to eat up. “Half the battle is to get it onto their plates,” Foley said. “Even if they throw it away or don’t eat it all the first few times, the hope is that they’ll eventually cave in and try it. They can’t try it if it’s not on the plate.”

Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and everything else that tickles their taste buds. 

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal