What every parent should know about school lunch

Elementary aged students at Decatur Township's Blue & Gold Academy fill their trays during school lunch.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – School districts across central Indiana have already begun the 2015-2016 school year, and as kids head back they will continue to have nutritious options for school lunch.

“We require that at every meal all the kids are offered a particular portion size that’s acceptable for the grade group,” says School Nutrition Program Specialist for the Indiana Department of Education, Allie Sipe. She’s responsible for training all food service directors around the state of Indiana. “That includes whole grains, meat, meat alternatives — like yogurt, and peanut butter and cheese sticks — then we have fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The federal government overhauled school lunch standards in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, although the first changes didn’t take effect until the 2012-2013 school year. The new rules mandated minimum daily and weekly quantities and types of food items, including meat or meat alternatives, vegetables and vegetable subgroups, fruits, whole grain-rich products, and milk.

Schools were also required to implement portion increases, adjust to new calorie ranges, introduce different vegetable types and eliminate trans fat in every meal.

Elementary students fill the cafeteria at the Blue & Gold Academy.
Elementary students fill the cafeteria at the Blue & Gold Academy in Decatur Township.

“Typically we like to have two, three, four or five [fruit and vegetable] options so that when a student sees something they like, they make sure to pick up that fresh fruit or vegetable,” says Becky Betz, director of child nutrition for Decatur Township.

Betz has worked in food services at Decatur Township for the last nine years and says her district recently returned to “from scratch” cooking to comply with the federal mandates.

“We make homemade muffins for all of our students. We make our own peanut butter and jelly as opposed to buying the pre-packaged ones,” says Betz. “We just made some choices to save money so we could still fit within our budget and provide the things that we thought were important for our students.”

Decatur Township serves between 5,000 and 5,500 school lunches daily to its student body of 6,500 students. In order to check out at the cafeteria, each child must have one entrée – essentially made of a protein and grain source – and one fruit or vegetable on their tray.

In the 2014-2015 school year, schools were required to make all grain foods rich in whole grains and begin a series of goals for reducing sodium in meals. The same year, the new Smart Snacks program set nutritional standards for food sold in vending machines and a la carte. It required that all foods be rich in whole grains and the first ingredient must either be a fruit or vegetable, a dairy product or a protein.

“What’s really cool is a lot of our schools are doing taste tests. They’re creating student advisory groups in order to get kids on board. They’re creating new methods and new lines that get kids excited to make kids feel like they’re at a restaurant,” says Sipe.

Cafeteria worker at the Blue & Gold Academy prepares so-called 'potato smiles' for elementary school lunch.
Cafeteria worker at the Blue & Gold Academy prepares ‘potato smiles’ for elementary school lunch.

Since the changes went into effect, Betz says school kids have been regularly testing new food products. It’s allowed the district to pinpoint items that fit within the guidelines that kids enjoy eating.

“You may look at the menu and see things like cheeseburgers and nachos, but those products are specially formulated for schools to be lower in fat, lower in sodium, but they’re still those kid favorites because we want our kids to eat at the end of the day,” says Betz.

A 2014 study done by the Harvard School of Public Health found children are eating healthier lunches at least in part because of the new federal guidelines. The study found 23 percent more students are choosing fruits since the standards went into effect in 2012. Consumption of vegetables is also up 16 percent.

“One of my favorite things is hearing a parent say ‘my student asked me to buy kiwi; we’ve never had it at home but they love it at school,’” says Betz.  “So just knowing that they’re getting a wide variety of things, maybe seeing things they don’t eat at home and trying new things.”

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