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Healthier School Lunches Causing Headaches for Districts

New federal guidelines mean changes that may be hard to swallow at lunch time.

New federal demands for healthier school lunches are causing a summer scramble for Long Island school districts to meet the new demands.

The real impact will likely be felt during the first weeks of school in September, when many kids begin to notice smaller portions of meat and increased portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Across the region, and the nation, districts are struggling with both the need to match new guidelines and to communicate the changes to parents and students.

Districts are having to respond to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is making the first major changes in school meal requirements in 15 years which, the government says, reflect the latest nutrition science and the circumstances of America’s schools.

The new federal guidelines require most schools to "increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements," according to the program's summary.

On the surface, the concept makes sense, but the changes are detailed and complicated.

For example, the new rules dictate the kinds of specific vegetables that must be provided, breaking down the components into items such as "red" and "dark green" vegetables. The rules generally lower the weight of the minimum daily requirements for meat in the lower grades.

And gone are the small packages of whole milk; now milk must be 1 percent or non-fat. Those chocolate milk packages are history.

Long Island school nutrition directors are attending a seminar this week on how districts and their contracted food providers can meet the requirements, school officials said.

"Students will definitely notice a difference," said Holly Von Seggern, vice president of marketing for Whitsons Culinary Group of Islandia, which serves about 20 school districts across Long Island.

Whitsons has been preparing for the changes for almost two years and providing a range of new options for its districts to get kids used to the changes, Von Seggern said. They've even recommended that parents offer whole grains and more fruits and bean dishes during the summer to prepare kids for the changes.

In September, a school lunch plate will look different, she said. "They will notice a smaller burger and more vegetables," she said. The buns will be smaller, the portions different. 

Earlier this month, thousands of food service workers and nutrition experts from around the country gathered in Denver at the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association, where the new standards were a big topic of conversation, according to a July 11 New York Times story.

The USDA's report said the meal program changes are based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. It claims they are expected to enhance the diet and health of school children, and "help mitigate the childhood obesity trend," according to the federal report.

Local districts were expected to comply with the changes by July 1. The impact, however, is likely to be heard during the opening weeks of school, when kids and parents begin complaining about smaller portions.

“We are in compliance and have been for quite a while—we followed the discussion and understood what will be required by the new laws and regulations," Garden City schools superintendent Dr. Robert Feirsen said.

Some school leaders said they expect some children and, in turn, their parents, will find the portions insufficient for hungry teenagers. And while some school officials expect to hear complaints, they plan to mail out information in advance to explain the changes and tell parents and students can do.

One option, as always, will be to pack your own lunch. The federal government has no say on brown bagging it.

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