Students beginning the new school year may notice a few changes to the meals served along the lunch line.
Schools have always had specific guidelines to follow to ensure students are being served a nutritionally balanced meal, but new federal regulations are placing specific expectations on what goes on students' plates.
For example, all kindergarten through 12th-grade students must be served three-quarters to one cup of vegetables a day to be considered a full meal. That is in comparison to the previous one-half cup. Fewer breaded foods and less sodium will be served. There have also been specific changes to the types of milk, pasta and breads allowed.
-Messenger photo by Emilie Nelson
Blake Wilder, a Fort Dodge Senior High student, fills his tray with fruits and vegetables Thursday in the school lunch line. New federal lunch regulations require that high school students are served at least one cup of vegetables every day.
Some schools have found it difficult to meet the new calorie requirements while still making sure the required servings are made available.
"The calories have changed and a lot of things will be stricter," said MaChelle Showers, food service director for Prairie Valley Community Schools. "If something comes up too high you can always make changes, but sometimes getting in a serving of meat will take you over your calorie count and then you have to adjust your menu."
The new regulations call for a minimum 1 ounce serving of meat or meat alternative per day for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, and a minimum 2 ounces daily for ninth- through 12th-graders.
"We were always serving more meat than that," Showers said.
Specific calorie guidelines have also been set for different age groups. They require that a lunch for kindergarten through fifth-grade students contain 550 to 650 calories, sixth- through eighth-grade 600 to 700 calories, and ninth- through 12th-grade 750 to 850 calories.
Almost everything offered in the food line, including condiments and dressings, is included in the calorie count, according to Judy Zoch, head cook at Southeast Webster-Grand Junior-Senior High School. That means even a healthy alternative, such as a salad, is counted in the calorie intake.
"It gets challenging," said Zoch. "We have a fruit bar and a vegetable and salad bar. But you even have to limit your salads. Kids can't add all the meat, cheese and dressings that they used to."
Brenda Janssen, food service director for the Fort Dodge Community Schools, said the district is being proactive in counting the condiments in the daily calorie requirement.
"We've cut back on the condiments," Janssen said.
Vendors can also be a factor in meeting the nutritional requirements, Janssen said.
"We tried to order some baby carrots from one vendor. They had almost run out," she said. "You can place an order for certain items, but you may not always be able to get them because the demand has gone up."
Some food manufacturers haven't gotten into the business of providing healthier foods, which can also pose a challenge.
"Some items aren't being packaged in personal containers for individual servings yet," Janssen said. "Low fat and fat-free dressing in single packages is hard to come by. That means the manufacturers aren't quite buying into the healthy food acts yet."
Showers said her food service is being very vigilant.
'We're watching everything, even the breading on foods," said Showers. "We have had to see who uses whole grain breading, and that might mean using a different vendor for those things."
The vegetable requirements are rather complex, Showers added. For instance, specific types of vegetables, such as dark green, legumes/beans/peas, red/orange and starches expected to be served each week.
At most schools, that means there will be fewer servings of french fries.
"We're serving sweet potato fries," said Zoch. "The kids haven't quite bought into those yet."
"We will still offer most of the same things," Janssen said. "You can buy almost anything a la carte, but what some might miss are the potatoes and fries. We are limited on starches."
For smaller schools, like Prairie Valley, another challenge in menu planning comes with the division of grade levels.
"The groups are kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth, and ninth through 12th," Showers said. "It is a little more challenging to plan menus because our sixth-graders are in the same building as kindergarten through fifth, and our seventh- and eighth-graders are at the high school."
Said Zoch, "We just have to do what is asked of us and we'll do OK."