(Photo by Kate Padilla)
Michelle Obama and her "Let's Move" campaign implemented the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act," this year, signed by President Obama in 2010.
The new act focuses on establishing healthier eating habits within children, by transforming the food environment at school. Lunch lines will no longer carry desserts. The cafeteria vending machines will no longer stock sodas and sugary juice drinks. The milk will be either low- or non-fat.
Each of the 10 implementation years focus on a different element of the school lunch program. This year's goal is to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in the students' diet.
"It's definitely a healthier approach," Kari Hardman, food service director at Clay Central-Everly schools, said. "A lot of kids nowadays don't eat many fruits and vegetables on a regular basis."
According to the regulations, every child, regardless of age level, is required to take a minimum of a half cup of fruit or vegetable. Middle and high school students are offered a cup each of fruit and vegetable. They can take both cups if they would like, but they are required to take at least a half cup.
"The kids are excited for the fruit," Spencer Food Service Director Laurie Lawson said.
In addition to the increase in fruits and vegetables, calorie limits are put on each meal offered. Elementary meals must be within 550-650 calories; middle school meals must be within 600-700 calories; and high school meals must be within 750-850 calories.
Limits are also placed on the amount of grain and meat servings per week. High schoolers are allowed 10 to 12 servings of whole grain per week. This limit includes the breading on chicken patties and nuggets, and is based on the number of grain ounces. For example, a breaded chicken patty sandwich could include as many as four servings of grain.
With the added health benefits this program creates, food service directors still have concerns about how effective this program will be.
One of the biggest concerns is how the school will be able to continue serving fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter.
"I'm going to start doing more research on what vegetables are better to buy in the winter," Hardman said. "The fresh things will be more costly, but I can understand trying to get them healthy."
"Midwest Iowa is different from other areas of the country," Lawson said.
"I think they need to tailor the program more for the different areas of the country," Ruthven-Ayrshire Food Service Director Kay Thompson said. "We live in the Midwest, our season's aren't like the west coast's or the South's."
Clay Central-Everly has created an account at a local grocery store, to make fresh fruits and vegetables available all year round. They are not certain as to the cost, but they have been able to get a good price in the past.
Spencer schools have noticed an increase in the amount of waste from the fruits and vegetables that the students were required to take.
"We're required by the government to get rid of it," Lawson said.
Lawson has put out a fresh fruit and vegetable bar at the end of the lunch line in the high school and middle school.
Clay Central-Everly schools have reduced the amount of waste by serving the students their fruits and vegetables. If they would like more than what they were given, they can come and get more, but the school controls the portions.
"They've got eyes bigger than their stomachs," Thompson said.
An additional concern is for the students who require higher calorie meals, either for a sport or because a school lunch is the only meal they get in a day.
"Bigger kids need more to eat, especially on game nights," Thompson said.
Students are able to purchase multiple meals, unless their parents have blocked them from doing so.
Schools who comply with the regulations will receive an additional six cents per meal served. Whether the additional funds will cover the increased cost of the fresher food, the directors don't yet know. But they all agree that the healthier food will be more expensive.
In future years, the program will focus on creating healthier breakfasts and on reducing sodium in the school meals. Hardman is optimistic about the changes that will be coming.
"There are other spices to add to vegetables," Hardman said.
So far, the response from the children has been largely positive.
"The kids are understanding," Hardman said. "They know things are changing, and so far they've responded well to the new foods."
"We're encouraging the kids to try the new foods," Thompson said. "Some will like it, some won't. But taste buds change, and it's nice to introduce them to something."
While the directors do see potential in the changes, they agree that the new act isn't the end-all in childhood obesity.
"It's not the lunch program's fault," Lawson said. "We have to have parent encouragement."
"In the bigger schools, even in Iowa, the high schools have open campus lunch, where the kids don't have to eat school lunches," Thompson said. "If they don't like the lunches, they can just go somewhere else to eat."
"Once this year is over, we'll know more about what works and what doesn't work, and we can change our own program accordingly," Hardman said. "They set the guidelines, and we have to follow them. It's a learning experience."
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307) places the following calorie limits on the students' meals, based on age level:
- Kindergarden-5th grade: 550-650 calories per meal
- 6th grade-8th grade: 600-700 calories per meal
- High school: 750-850 calories per meal