Schools prepare for federal food service requirements

Published 7:56 am Thursday, December 16, 2010

Area school districts still have a year or two before all of the new requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are put into effect, but school food and nutrition experts are already figuring out what, if any, changes need to be made.

“We won’t really know the impact of it for a while,” said Mary Weikum, the food and nutrition director of Austin Public Schools.

School food directors have already been making comparable changes to what kids are eating than what the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is mandating. This legislation, which is the latest renewal of the Child Nutrition Bill that expires every five years, will give the U.S. Department of Agriculture more power to set nutrition standards for school districts and mandate things like offering more fruits, vegetables and whole grain bread products.

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At Southland School District, much of the school lunch menu are in line with newly made federal guidelines, according to Lea Ann Gilbert, the head cook at Southland.

“I’m not sure it’s going to impact us hugely,” Gilbert said. “Some of the things (in the bill) are the same things we’ve been trying to do for a long time.”

Gilbert hasn’t looked at the bill in detail, but from what she’s read, much of the bill mandates practices Southland already does, such as offering a snack option to elementary students during the day along with an increase in fruits and vegetables.

“For southeast Minnesota, for people I talked to, they’re already going in this direction,” Gilbert said.

At Austin, food and nutrition staff are keeping an eye on some of the new funding regulations in the bill. If schools have to double the amounts of fruits and vegetables offered to students, it will mean draining the food service coffers, which, despite a favorable audit, wouldn’t be able to support the extra charges for long without taking some sort of action.

The food service budget in Austin operates separately from the district’s general fund, which means no money from the general fund goes into the food service budget and vice versa.

“You can only lose money on every meal,” Weikum said.

If push comes to shove, raising school lunch prices could be an option, although it’s not one Weikum hopes to pursue. School lunches cost $2 for middle school and high school students at Austin, and $1.80 for elementary students, which is among the lowest school lunch prices in southeast Minnesota school districts, Weikum said. Since the school district has about half of its students on free and reduced lunch programs, raising prices would further hurt low-income families already in dire straits.

“We don’t want to really raise prices,” Weikum said. “We really are trying, we want to maintain that.”

Not to say food costs aren’t rising already, but Austin currently follows several of the new guidelines, such as using whole grain products in all of their grain offerings, whether it be rolls or pasta noodles or pizza crust. Some of the new regulations may not work out as well as federal officials hope, however. One of the new rules Weikum noticed is a mandate stating school districts can only serve starchy vegetables twice a week. That means corn and potatoes may only be served once a month, even though almost every student loves and eats corn when it’s offered. In addition, more orange vegetables, like squash, will be worked into school menus.

“You can offer (students) as much as you possibly can but you can’t put it in their mouth, and you can’t make them take it,” Gilbert said.

Changes, if and when they must happen, won’t affect school lunches for at least a year and a half, according to Weikum. School government officials across the country will have a little more time to figure out what will and won’t work when it comes to student nutrition.

“The reality is we’ll probably have a couple of years to figure it out,” Weikum said.