Hard-to-swallow nutrition rules push schools further

By Joe Robertson / The Kansas City Star

Published May 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hickman Mills school nutritionist Leah Schmidt has always loved solving that puzzle of serving up healthy meals that nose-wrinkling children actually will eat.

The regular post-lunch parade of Dobbs Elementary children by the trash cans last week showed that the school’s food team had mostly pulled off a successful meal.

Here and there, some whole servings of apple slices got dumped, but otherwise empty trays and empty milk cartons filled the bins.

But the puzzle may soon become too hard, Schmidt fears.

The School Nutrition Association is calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ease up on the next round of federal healthy food requirements, due July 1. The goals have been rising steeply over the last two years.

Schmidt is the current national president of the nutrition association.

The nutritionists are worried about three regulations. One would require all grain servings to be rich in whole grains — or more than 50 percent whole-grain — affecting such items as pastas, bread, rolls and pizza crusts. The current rule requires half the grain servings to be rich in whole grains.

Another rule would make it so children must pick up a fruit or vegetable with each meal, rather than just expecting servers to strongly encourage it. Schools fear it will lead to food waste.

The USDA also is phasing in steep reductions in the allowable amounts of sodium, which would become a problem particularly with the levels expected by 2017, Schmidt said.

“One deli turkey sandwich with cheese and mustard would use up most of the sodium for the week,” she said.

Schools already are feeling some strain, the nutrition association reported. Since the new standards were first implemented in 2012, the number of children participating in lunch and breakfast programs has fallen by 1.2 million, from 31 million to less than 30 million.

“It used to be fun playing with things, letting kids pick things,” Schmidt said of menu planning. “But now when you get a menu down, you don’t change it.”

Limits within limits

As things are, schools already have responded to weekly limits on calories, sodium and fat while meeting rising expectations on nutrients, grains and meats — all variable according to the ages of students, including limits within limits.

The calories within the overall limit can’t be more than 30 percent fat or 10 percent saturated fat.

Dobbs fifth-grader Cree Crook said she thinks her school’s lunch team has done fairly well satisfying her and her classmates. The whole-grain movement has taken regular macaroni and cheese out of the mix. (Whole-grain pasta just doesn’t work with that kid favorite, Schmidt said.) But that’s OK, said Cree.

“We have the Santa Fe Mac,” she said, meaning the whole-grain pasta and cheese dish with red sauce. “It’s good, and it comes with a whole-wheat roll. The wheat roll is very healthy for you.”

Cree said she thinks children are getting the message. She knows to get tomatoes and lettuce in her taco salad. She’s learned to like green beans.

The USDA acknowledges that schools have come a long way toward providing healthy meals. More than 90 percent of schools are meeting the standards.

In the Shawnee Mission School District, the food services manager, Nancy Coughenour, said nutritionists and students have mostly adapted to the healthier demands.

“You have to mess with it,” she said, meaning coming up with scratch recipes or working with vendors.

The district’s regular chocolate cake desert has made the transition to whole-grain flour, she said. Going to whole-grain soft tortillas was a tricky move that seems to have gone well.

Coughenour said elementary school programs that give pupils opportunities to try new vegetables and fruits in classroom settings have helped, but she agrees that the next level of demands may be pushing too far, particularly with the sodium limits.

The 2017 target — 935 milligrams total in an elementary school lunch and 1,080 milligrams in a high school lunch — looks to be too high of a standard for food manufacturers, Coughenour said. Some student favorites may not survive.

“You have to rely on manufacturers,” she said. “Chicken nuggets, pizza, ketchup, mustard — I don’t know what we’ll do with those.”

A changing industry?

Janey Thornton, a USDA undersecretary, acknowledged the food industry isn’t ready to meet the coming sodium standard, but she encouraged frustrated school lunch directors to “worry about today first before we imagine the worst down the road.”

Thornton, a former school nutrition director, says problems will lessen as the food industry creates healthier products. “I’ll bet that five or seven years down the road, we’ll see kids eating healthy food and we’ll see acceptance,” she said.

She said the government in particular is working with the food industry to develop better pastas.

The USDA has shown some flexibility already. In 2012, the department scrapped maximums on proteins and grains after students complained they were hungry.

Statewide, Missouri also has seen a dip in participation in school lunch and breakfast programs, down 5 percent in the 2012-2013 school year, said Karen Wooton, the state coordinator of food and nutrition services.

The USDA’s demanding standards “have good intentions,” Wooton said. “But I think more time would help for getting better compliance. There are not enough products yet. More time would be good for the industry.”

Some nutrition advocates cautioned against relaxing the new rules.

Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest who has pushed for healthier meals, says relaxing those standards could gut the program. “You can’t call a meal a meal without a fruit or vegetable,” she said.

Republicans who have complained of government overreach say they may intervene. U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the chairman of the committee that oversees the USDA’s budget, has said school districts need a “pause” while problems are worked out.

Aderholt’s panel is expected to release a new spending bill this month that may propose changes. Republicans also are considering the next five-year renewal of the school nutrition policy, due in 2015.

Sam Kass, a senior policy adviser for nutrition at the White House, said last month that there have been “tremendous gains” in school foods. He said he finds efforts to undermine that disappointing: “First and foremost, the key is not going back.”

Cree’s not going back. Her parents are on board, she said.

“My mom and dad want me to have four vegetables and fruits (every day).”

The school nutritionists are not going back either, Schmidt said. Of course they will push for healthier meals, she said. “It’s in our DNA.”

But as for the USDA standards, she said, “I hope they’ll be realistic about it.”