School districts adjusting to new federal food guidelines
By Deb Deasy and Patrick Varine
Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013, 10:48 a.m.
Uncle Sam's call to “eat more vegetables” apparently fell on deaf ears since the current school year began in Pine-Richland School District.
Sodexo, the district's food service, is selling about 11 percent fewer than expected, reimbursable lunches after implementing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
“The changes were fairly drastic for the kids,” said Cherry Cerminara, general manager of Sodexo food services for Pine-Richland School District.
“Change takes time, and there were several changes that went into effect, all at once,” Cerminara said.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act sets forth nutrient guidelines for kindergarteners through high school seniors. It reduces, for example, allowable portions of pizza and meats.
The act also requires students to select at least one half-cup of a fruit or vegetable with each meal.
“Basically, many districts have lost meal counts over this,” Cerminara told the Pine-Richland School Board at the board's April 22 meeting.
But not all.
In Penn Hills, district officials are expecting the food-service program this year to post a $75,000 surplus thanks to labor-cost savings and food sales over and above last year's projections, according to information presented to the district's finance committee last month by business director Richard Liberto.
“A la carte sales are up $100 a day over the budgeted numbers, and breakfast sales are up $120 a day over the projections,” Liberto told the committee.
Michelle Marker, director of programs for The Nutrition Group, which handles food service for Penn Hills as well as Shaler, Sto-Rox, Albert Gallatin, West Mifflin, McKeesport, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward and other local districts, said education has been a key component in their success.
“With the guidelines, we found that we had to do a little more educating,” Marker said.
“We went into schools and explained why students had to take a fruit and a vegetable. And kids — especially older kids — don't like to be told what to do. It was a very different thing for all of us.”
Marker said Nutrition Group officials created posters and literature that were placed alongside lunch lines to help inform students about the changes and the reasons behind them.
Food service directors also solicited input from all levels in their school districts.
“Our directors met with groups of about a dozen students to talk with them about what kids are saying, what they like and what they don't,” Marker said. “Directors also spoke with the lunch ladies and cafeteria monitors.”
Marker said a special “Wellness Wednesday” promotion in elementary schools also has been a great help.
“Parents, PTO members or teachers man a colorful table in the cafeteria, and we'd offer different types of fruits and vegetables,” she said.
As an example, Marker said one day “Wellness Wednesday” tables were handing out sweet-potato-casserole samples.
“If you just put that on the menu, kids would say, ‘Oh, I don't want that.' But we introduced it at the (Wellness) table, and it was a hit … we gave the kids a sticker when they tried something new, and it really caught on and worked well.”
In addition, Nutrition Group officials sent a regularly published newsletter home with kids, so that parents could read about changes in the food-service program.
Not all school districts' food service is thriving under the new regulations, however.
Last year, Sodexo guaranteed to return $38,497 to Pine-Richland School District. Sodexo now expects to lose nearly $20,000 during the current school year, and plans to ultimately pay Pine-Richland School District more than $58,000 to meet its contract obligations.
“Sodexo has been working with school administration, students and parents to ensure everyone has a full understanding of the new USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) school meal regulations,” Cerminara said. “As children become accustomed to the change, the expectation is for meals to return to previously seen participation levels.”
Cerminara said Sodexo is working with food companies and recipe developers to ensure that all U.S. schools offer meals with student appeal that also satisfy the federal government's nutritional rules.
Marker said she viewed the situation as a welcome challenge.
“Anytime you have a change, obviously it's going to be different, especially to students,” she said. “As we moved forward and food-service directors got a grip on what their students were looking for, we've adjusted things to suit the situation.”
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