It’s lunchtime at schools around San Luis Obispo County — and the menus look a little different than in past decades.
At Ocean View Elementary School in Arroyo Grande, first-graders speed through the line, grabbing trays and milk (chocolate is a favorite flavor) before heading to a salad bar to pick up some fruits and veggies. At the end of the salad bar, a cafeteria worker chats with each student as she puts a slice of pizza on every tray.
“Back up,” she tells one of the rowdy boys as he gets to the front of the line. “You didn’t get your vegetables.”
At Hawthorne Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, the kindergarteners run into the school’s kitchen first, a flurry of hands grabbing premade trays of spaghetti and meatballs, carrots and strawberries.
The older students come in later, first lining up at a salad bar — where options included raisins, carrots, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cantaloupe and a bread stick — and then choosing spaghetti or chicken taco salad.
New federal rules put in place in 2012 require most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk, and reduce the amount of sodium and saturated fat. The meals also must meet the nutritional needs of schoolchildren within specific calorie requirements.
In some cases, the menu might look similar to pre-2012, but look closer.
Underneath the homemade tomato sauce is whole-grain pasta, and the pizza made specifically for schools includes whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese.
Macaroni and cheese is still on the menu, “but before it would have been bow-tie enriched noodles; now it’s whole-grain elbow macaroni,” said Kathy Martin, food service director for the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.
“It’s all brown rice now, not white rice.”
Whole grains and veggies
The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to provide nutritious meals for little to no cost to low-income children.
Even from its beginning, the program emphasized nutrition.
Section Two of the National School Lunch Act states the lunch program’s purpose is to “safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.”
Today, nearly 32 million kids eat school lunches, 20 million of them from low-income families.
In San Luis Obispo County in 2013-14, about 44 percent of the 34,539 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated school meal nutrition standards in an effort to address the nation’s obesity problem and provide healthy meals for kids — particularly kids whose families struggle to make ends meet.
The 2012 rules, phased in over several years, require schools to do the following:
- Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components, including a fruit requirement at lunch;
No one disagrees with the goal of providing healthy meals.
The challenge, Martin said, is coming up with nutritious meals that kids like but that also meet the guidelines and aren’t too expensive (lunch costs $2.75; breakfast is $1.75).
“Everywhere I go, I’m thinking, ‘How can I make that whole grain?’” she said. “And how can you get the kids to eat it? They’re a tough crowd especially at high school when it’s open campus, I can’t compete with Frank’s and Taco Bell.”
The whole grain rules also apply to desserts — in the Lucia Mar Unified School District, even cookies have to be made with whole grains, food services director Cindy Naber said.
“Most people don’t think of that, but cookies count in the grain category, so they have to be made from at least 51 percent whole grains,” she said. “The kids can definitely taste a difference there.”
The federal rules also emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, and both Lucia Mar and San Luis Coastal require students to pick up at least one at each meal. At Hawthorne Elementary, the kindergarteners who receive pre-assembled meals get both fruit and vegetables.
The rules also reduce the sodium content of school meals — a USDA study in 2004-05 found the average school lunch had more than 1,400 milligrams of sodium.
The upper limits established by the Institute of Medicine range from 1,900 to 2,300 a day for children ages 4 to 18.
Minimum and maximum calorie levels also have been established.
Kindergarteners through fifth-grade students should have 550 to 650 calories at lunch. That increases to 600 to 700 calories for sixth through eighth-grade students, and 750 to 850 calories for ninth through 12th-grade students.
‘Taco Paradise’ day
Fewer students have been buying school lunches this year in San Luis Coastal, but the reasons could vary, Martin said.
In the 2013-14 year, the district served 409,985 lunches; this year, which has nearly ended, students ate 370,388 lunches.
A new “breakfast in the classroom” program actually saw an increase in participation, however, she noted.
The lunch decrease could be due to factors other than a change in taste: the cost, and the fact that Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo high schools now allow all grades to leave campus at lunchtime.
Some schools are trying different ideas to increase participation in the lunch program, like a baked potato bar at Morro Bay High on Wednesdays.
Hawthorne Elementary’s student council devised a “Taco Paradise” day for June 1 where students got to make their own tacos and burritos.
“We’re trying to guide them the right way nutritionally,” Martin said, “and maybe not tell them all we’re doing.”
Still, even first-graders know what they like — and what they don’t like.
“This is my favorite,” Cody Marshall, 7, said while eating his spaghetti and meatballs at Hawthorne Elementary. “I don’t eat the vegetables here. I only eat vegetables at home because they make them better at home.”
A “share table” was set up nearby for students to unload pre-packaged items they didn’t want. On this day, it contained cartons of milk and bags of raisins and carrots. Students dumped lettuce and half-eaten slices of cantaloupe in the trash.
In the Lucia Mar school district, Naber said the difficulty isn’t necessarily just finding healthy options that students will enjoy — it’s doing that and keeping up with the guidelines.
“Every year, new rules are being phased in,” Naber said. “And each time it impacts the menu pretty significantly. We have to keep changing and keep updating the menus year to year. We don’t ever get to really keep one menu.”
Next year, for example, Naber predicts there will be legislation further lowering the amount of sodium allowed.
“That’s going to be a difficult one to manage,” she said. “The meals are already very low in sodium, and the students can taste that — they taste bland. It’s not what the students are used to when they have a corndog or something similar from home. Lowering the sodium again is going to be difficult.”
Lucia Mar served 774,810 lunches in 2013-14 and is on track to serve nearly that many this school year, she said.
Corn dogs, pizza, burritos and chicken nuggets all make appearances on the weekly school menus as they have in the past, but now they have a twist: The corn dogs are low-sodium made in a whole grain batter; the burritos are made with a whole grain tortilla and low-fat cheese; the chicken nuggets are also whole grain, and the pizza slices are Domino’s special school-blend, with whole grain crust and low-fat cheese and pepperoni.
Though Naber worried that students can tell the difference between the new choices and their less-healthy alternatives, some students don’t seem to notice.
When asked if she thought she ate healthier at home or at school, second-grader Kinzie Amer said confidently, “home.”
“Here we have pizza and chicken nuggets,” she said. “At home I have to eat other stuff. The food is really good here.”
Beside the entrees, elementary school students also have a daily salad bar they can go through to build their own salads, Naber said. Middle and high school students tend to prefer prepackaged salads they can grab and go, she said.
The district tests out new recipes periodically. They recently took several new USDA-suggested samples to a government class at Grover Heights Elementary School and had the students give feedback, Naber said.
“They were very vocal about what they liked or didn’t like,” she said. “They had no problem telling us that they didn’t like something.”
Federal lunch guidelines
|Grades K-5||Grades 6-8||Grades 9-12|
|Calories (per day)||550-650||600-700||750-850|
|Calories from saturated fat|
|Sodium (per day)|
|Whole grain servings||8 or more per week||8 or more per week||10 or more per week|
|Meat or meat alternative servings||8 or more per week||9 or more per week||10 or more per week|
|Fruit offered||2.5 cups per week||2.5 cups per week||5 cups per week|
|Vegetables offered||3.75 cups per week||3.75 cups per week||5 cups per week|
|Milk (nonfat or 1%)||5 cup per week||5 cups per week||5 cups per week|
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture