Editorial: Lunch requirements too strict

It can be difficult for the average school cafeteria to dish up meals that are appetizing and meet the federal nutrition standards that began going into effect in 2012. And the challenge will only become greater in the next school year, when those standards become stricter.

As an example, school districts now must make at least half of their servings of such things as bread and pasta whole-grain. Next year, all their servings must be whole-grain, which is particularly challenging when it comes to pasta.

Too, sodium levels go down next year as part of a plan that will have dramatically less salt in school meals by 2022. The final levels — 640 milligrams per lunch for kindergarten through fifth grade — pose a particular challenge when you consider this: 1 cup of milk, whether nonfat or 1 percent, contains more than 240 mg of sodium naturally.

The new requirements have officials at some districts in a dither. In particular, they say, though students must take either fruit or vegetable servings as part of lunch, they are throwing too many of those servings away. As one school nutritionist in Georgia said, discarded food makes for healthy trash cans — but not for healthy kids.

Terry Cashman, who heads up the nutrition programs for Bend-La Pine Schools, is more positive. While he is continuing to look for a whole-grain pasta that is as palatable is its more refined counterpart, and while he believes new sodium levels also present a challenge, he says increased waste at the district’s schools hasn’t been a problem.

Then there’s this. If students don’t like the food at the cafeteria, many will go somewhere else. Numbers at Bend-La Pine are down 2 to 3 percent, a fraction lower than the national decline of 3.2 percent last year, according to the School Nutrition Association.

While healthy, well-fed kids are the laudable goal, getting there will be difficult if children won’t eat what’s served. School districts will have to be creative as they tackle the new standards. Meanwhile, the agriculture department might want to consider granting at least temporary exemptions to some of the most stringent requirements.