By SEAN ROWLEY
TAHLEQUAH — firstname.lastname@example.org
Since its inception in 1946, the National School Lunch program has served hundreds of billions of meals, but for schools to participate, their foods must meet federal standards.
With diet cited for increases in obesity and other health concerns among children, lunch program guidelines have become more restrictive in recent years. On Aug. 16, Oklahoma was among six states cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with nearly 100 percent of schools meeting the USDA’s nutritional meals standards. Others were Florida, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Colorado.
According to the USDA website, recent requirements include increased availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Students used to be permitted to take items from any three of the five food groups,” said Rhonnie Kerns, child nutrition program director for Tahlequah Public Schools. “Now they must take at least one fruit or vegetable. The definition of whole grain is that 50 percent of grains in an item must be whole grain.”
Calorie limits are established for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
“Our portions are reduced this year,” Kerns said.
Sodium content of meals must also be lowered. Reduction targets are set for the 2014-’15, 2017-’18 and 2022-’23 terms. Kerns said the practice at TPS is to try to implement USDA standards before they are required.
“We don’t cook with salt anymore. We are learning to cook with other spices and changing the recipes,” said Kerns.
Districts participating in the National School Lunch Program receive a reimbursement for each meal served.
“We receive an extra 6 cents on each meal,” Kerns said. “The menus are analyzed and a report is approved. We met all requirements during the 2012-’13 year.”
Meals are looking up at Keys, too
Keys Public Schools recently hired a nutrition director to oversee compliance with lunch program guidelines.
“We have always had managers for each kitchen, but there are so many guidelines that you need someone working full-time to deal with them,” said Billie Jordan, superintendent.
Jordan said compliance is helpful for more than just monetary reasons.
“Most of our students are on reduced or free lunches, so the reimbursement helps,” she said. “But the new guidelines are designed to be more nutritious and we want to meet those as best we can. It can sometimes be difficult for smaller schools systems with fewer resources, but our nutritional director will help us to do everything correctly.”
Schools must offer a “meal pattern” established by the USDA. A weekly lunch meal pattern for high schools must include five cups of fruit, five cups of vegetables in four categories defined as dark green, red/orange, legumes and starchy. Additional vegetables, grains, meat or meat alternates and fluid milk are also required.
Calories per meal must be 750-850 for high schools, 600-700 for middle schools and 550-650 for elementary schools. Saturated fats must account for less than 10 percent of calories and there must be no trans fats. Sodium content must not exceed 740 milligrams per meal for high schools, 710 milligrams for middle schools and 640 milligrams for elementary schools.
Like Keys, most TPS students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
“Last year, 73 percent of our students were eligible and most of those were free,” said Kerns. “Break it down by meals served, and about 85 percent are free or reduced.”
In a typical day, TPS serves about 2,500 lunches, 1,300 breakfasts and 360 after-school snacks, but some children still bring their lunch pails.
“You do still see some of that, most noticeably at the prekindergarten level,” she said. “The older the students, the fewer there are that pack their own lunches. You don’t see it much at all at the middle school or high school.”
To check out the typical meal at a Tahlequah school, go to www.tahlequahTDP.com/onlineexclusives.