Updated nutrition guidelines are dramatically increasing demand for some fresh produce items and are transforming school lunches for nearly 32 million students.
While cost and student acceptance of increased servings of fruit and vegetables are concerns, school foodservice directors were positive about the new guidelines.
Schools in Emporia, Kan., are using about three times as much fresh produce as last year at the same time, said Jill Vincent, school foodservice director for the Emporia school district, with 4,600 students. “Our coolers are filled to the roof of produce that we are purchasing.”
Vincent said students are taking and eating the fruits and vegetables.
“That’s the goal of this, and that’s a good thing.” she said.
In January, first lady Michelle Obama announced the school meal nutrition standards, and the new rules went into effect in July. In August, the first lady issued a video encouraging kids to embrace the new school meal plan.
The new standards increased requirements for fruits and vegetables in school lunches from the previous one-half to three-fourths of a cup (combined) per day to the new requirement of three-fourths to one cup of vegetables plus one-half to one cup of fruit per day.
The regulations also say that children must take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables for the meal to be reimbursable.
According to the regulations, schools must offer a wide variety of vegetables, including a weekly serving of dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes. Other provisions said that no more than 10% of calories can come from saturated fat and that schools must eliminate added trans-fat. The regulations require reduced sodium levels and increased whole grain bread requirements over time.
With the school year just beginning in some parts of the country, it is too early to judge the effect of the new rules, said Cathy Schuchart, vice president of child nutrition and policy for the National Harbor, Md.-based School Nutrition Association.
“What we have been hearing is that people are adapting to the challenges and the changes,” she said Aug. 30. “The attitude is extremely positive but there are some hurdles.”
Two weeks into the school year, only one child resisted taking the required half-cup of fruit or vegetables, said Brenda Robinson, director of foodservice for Bakersfield City School, a K-8 school district in Bakersfield, Calif.
“Out of 28,000 children, that is a pretty good average,” she said.
Eleven Bakersfield elementary schools have participated in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides nutrition lessons and fresh fruits and vegetables in classrooms three days a week.
That makes students more familiar with fresh produce items in school lunches, Robinson said.
While it is too early to tell how much more fruits and vegetables students are consuming, schools are going to be serving more produce than they have in the past, said Charles Rathbun, director of food and nutrition for Blue Valley School District, Overland Park, Kan.
Students are required to take either a half a cup of fruit or vegetables every school lunch. For the Blue Valley district, he said students can take as much fruits and vegetables they want at the “offer bar.”
Rathbun said his biggest concern is that the fresh produce is consumed.
“We’re requiring them to have this and we’re just hoping it ends up in their stomachs and not discarded,” he said. “That’s our biggest fear.”
With the new nutrition guidelines emphasizing dark green vegetables, Paul Lieb, president of Foster-Caviness Co. Inc., Colfax, N.C., said many schools are moving from iceberg lettuce to romaine lettuce. The produce distributor delivers fruits and vegetables to about 900 schools in North Carolina.
Lieb said the switch from iceberg to romaine could create a romaine shortage, Lieb said.
Child nutrition departments are embracing new ideas to help educate children about fruits and vegetables.
“We’re trying lots of different fruits and vegetables and trying some things we haven’t done before,” said Peggy Lawrence, director of school nutrition for Rockdale County Public Schools, Conyers, Ga.
She said the 19-school, 16,000-student district began its year July 30.
Red and orange fresh pepper strips, grape tomatoes, honeydews, nectarines, pears, cantaloupe, watermelon, spinach salad and Caesar salad are offered by the district’s schools.
Lawrence said that students have been positive about the new menu standards.
“I have been here for 14 years, and I’ve heard more positive comments in the last month than I have ever before,” she said.
The district does not have salad bars, but offers pre-made salads to its students.
Lawrence said fresh produce purchases have been up substantially in the first month but some leveling off is expected as schools adjust. For example, determining how many nectarines a school of 600 students may need is hard predict.
“Do you need 300 nectarines or 500?” she said.
Lawrence said the district works with Royal Food Service in Atlanta to adjust supply to needs. The new standards call for weekly minimums of red/orange vegetables. In the case of bell peppers, the pepper strips must be only red or orange, and not yellow or green.
“Orange peppers have been almost impossible to get in the quantities we need so we are doing red peppers or otherwise it doesn’t meet that category,” she said.
Another recent issue is that smaller oranges have been in tight supply, so Lawrence has recently consulted with Royal Food Service and decided to stay away from oranges for a bit until the availability of smaller sizes expands.
“Produce changes with all kinds of variables so you have to be willing to adjust to that,” she said.
Another issue for school foodservice staff is knowing the optimum time to serve produce.
“If something comes in on Tuesday that is right and ready to serve, you might have to serve that on Wednesday even if it is not on the menu until Friday,” she said. The district wants to present the best possible eating experience for students that may have never had a particular fruit or vegetable before.
In the same way, if nectarines are as hard as a brick, schools don’t want to serve them too soon, she said.
“It is getting our staff trained to know when things are at their peak,” she said.
Lawrence said four of the district schools have the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the district also does farm to school procurement, with its vendor. Royal Food Service provides a description of the local farms that can be distributed to schools.
In a press conference Aug. 29, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said the new standards will combat child hunger and obesity and improve the health and nutrition of the nation’s children.
Phil Muir, president of Muir Copper Canyon Farms, Salt Lake City, said the School Nutrition Association annual convention in July revealed that while many school foodservice directors were ready for the change, others were in “near panic” stage to figure out the right amount of fruits and vegetables to serve.
Muir said Copper Canyon advised school foodservice directors in meetings during the summer, helping them to plan menus.
“Schools have to be creative and think outside the box and suppliers have to think outside the box to get the job done,” he said. “If you treat schools like any other customers, you won’t be successful.”