BENNINGTON -- Strict federal requirements will change the look and price of school lunches this fall, although local students may not taste as big of a difference in school cafeterias where self-imposed nutritional changes have been implemented in recent years.
New laws intended to address the rising problem of child obesity went into effect this summer and when school starts up in the fall, schools across the county will be required to offer more fruits and vegetables, age-appropriate calorie limits, less sodium, and at least half of all grains must be whole grain.
"We're already ahead of the game. We're already doing 50 percent whole wheat," said Maureen O'Neil, The Abbey Group's food service director for Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.
In past years, schools have been required to offer at least one-half cup of fruit or vegetables per day. This year, schools must offer at least three-fourths cup of vegetables as well as one-half cup of fruit per day. Not only is the produce being offered, O'Neil said the law requires students take a serving of produce with every lunch.
Healthy Kids Act
Additionally, the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010" requires schools to serve a variety of vegetables from greens, to beans, to starches, and red or orange options.
"We've already put in a lot of the fruits and vegetables, but now they're giving you how many dark green leafy vegetables, how many red and orange vegetables. It's more specific," O'Neil said.
The law also has a minimum and maximum calorie limit for students, which increases as they age. For instance, children in kindergarten through fifth grade must be served meals that average between 550 and 650 calories every week while high school lunches will average from 750 to 850 calories.
"It's very specific for calories and portion sizes now, so portion sizes are actually going to be a little bit smaller to meet the calorie count," O'Neil said.
In recent year's The Abbey Group has begun offering pizza made with whole wheat crust, (which beginning this fall will be the only pizza on SVSU school menus) as well as whole wheat breads, rolls, and pasta. Cafeterias also greatly reduced offering pre-breaded fried foods.
"Now we do a chicken breast versus a chicken patty. Once in a while we do chicken nuggets for the kids in elementary, but it will be once a month versus once a week," O'Neil said.
The new law requires food service providers to spend more time planning menus to meet all of the requirements, but O'Neil said the changes are positive.
"What (the law is) trying to teach them is to eat the right balanced meal. They're not going to be getting a heavily carb-laden lunch, they're going to be getting the nutrition that makes you run better, play harder, and let your brain work while you're at school," she said.
The nutrition standards progress in future years. In 2014, all grain must be whole grain in schools. Next year, the law will also put new requirements in place for school breakfasts.
Also changing this coming school year will be the price of lunch, which the SVSU school board decided in June will increase 10 cents to $1.85 in elementary schools and $2.10 at Mount Anthony Union middle and high schools. The increase is needed to cushion the federal requirement that by 2017 all school lunches cost the same as the federal reimbursement for free lunches, which is expected to be $2.51.
Families will have the opportunity to save some money during the first three weeks of school from Sept. 4 to Sept. 21 when all SVSU schools will offer free breakfast, sponsored by the supervisory union and Abbey Group. Kindergarten students are able to receive free breakfast all school year. O'Neil said the purpose of the initiative is to encourage students to get into the habit of eating every morning.
Anyone who wishes to learn more about school meals may contact O'Neil at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the new Facebook page by searching "Abbey SVSU."
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi