Gr8 Health: New year, new school food rules

BEECH GROVE, Ind. (WISH) — In an earlier Gr8 Health story, 24-Hour News 8 looked at nutrition for students who “brown bag it” and bring food to school. Now we examine the other option: buying breakfast or lunch.

This year, schools have a few new limitations — and a little more flexibility.

In the kitchen in the hours before Beech Grove’s first day back at class, Kelley Deahl, the district’s food service director, talked about the tough task ahead.

“We have to prepare a high school and middle school, and intermediate, and an elementary menu,” Deahl explains.

For all schools under the federal program, each grade group has different requirements. You can find specifics here.

“So those are the challenges for me,” she said. “Planning all these menus and trying to get items that the kids like that are under the calories. And sodium is a big one, because some processed foods have a lot of sodium.”

The past few years have seen sweeping changes in cafeteria offerings: most notably hard minimums and maximums on salt, calories, food type and portions.

Many schools bristled, saying the maximums actually hindered efforts to serve good food. The push-back worked on one count: grain and meat maximums are out.

“We were pretty excited when they took that away,” she said.

Deahl says the elimination of maximums means more options, like pasta bars, that give kids some control, and that, administrators hope, might lead to less freshly-made food going straight in the trash.

Schools are also changing how they prepare food, to avoid built-in nutritional nightmares. At Beech Grove High School the old deep fryers are permanently unplugged. The school plans to replace them with steamers instead.

The goal is finding food that follows the rules but also finds its way into the students’ stomachs. When it happens, administrators say the whole school day is stronger.

“Their belly is full. They’re in a better mood.  It directly relates to their attention span,” said Beech Grove Assistant Superintendent Tom Kelley. “You mention, it’s kind of a big deal? To us, it’s even bigger than that.  It’s cultural and it’s community and it’s helping quite a bit.”

Another trend that may be coming to your school cafeteria, if it’s not in place already: contractors. At Beech Grove, for instance, the food is prepared in the same school kitchens by most of the same people as always, but Deahl, the food service director, technically works for a company called Chartwells.

She works in the school kitchens planning menus, perfecting recipes, and making sure the food meets the Federal rules, but her paycheck is from the contracted company. Several Indiana school districts also contract through that company or similar ones.

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