By Jeff Noble / Staff writer
Changes made to school lunch programs have put cafeterias across America under new federal guidelines for nutrition and portion sizes. But for many schools such as the Corbin Independent district, it’s left some students feeling more empty and some parents less satisfied.
Those changes were mandated by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the programs in the schools. They went into effect July 1, and what students get from the menu means fewer calories as well as more fresh fruits and vegetables.
It also means smaller portions of proteins, such as meat and meat alternatives like poultry and fish, as well as grains, such as bread, rolls, rice and pasta.
Corbin Independent’s Food Services Director Ben Chitwood admits those changes have upset some students and parents. Chitwood says he understands how they feel.
“The biggest issue has been portion sizes. It’s not an issue with quality, but in quantity, and there’s nothing we can do. … My biggest concern is that some kids may go home hungry. For some kids, a school lunch is the only hot meal they may get all day. That keeps me up at night,” Chitwood noted during an interview Friday.
Those changes have also changed the eating habits of the district’s students during the first two weeks of the new school year, which began on Aug. 6. During that time, Chitwood said Corbin Independent saw the number of students eating lunch drop 11-12 percent district-wide.
“In August, we introduced some new items. Some worked and some didn’t. In September, we replaced some, brought other items that were more popular with students, and tried other new items. There’s been a lot of changes (because of the USDA guidelines), and all this puts us in a bind. It puts us between a rock and a hard place. I wished the USDA would have phased this in over time. We’re trying to ease into it as best we can,” he pointed out.
According to Chitwood, the changes made by the USDA this school year are the first in 15 years. In the past, what was issued by the federal government were what he called “minimums.” It meant a minimum of 3-4 ounces of proteins could be served, as well as a minimum of a half-cup of fruits and vegetables.
With the new guidelines, Chitwood said this year the word “minimums” have been replaced with “maximums” on a lot of items. In addition, the USDA has broken down those maximum servings into different age groups than what was used before.
First, there now three age groups as defined by the USDA — Kindergarten through 5th Grade, 6th through 8th Grade, and 9th through 12th Grade (high school).
“The older the age groups, a little bit bigger the portion size,” stated Chitwood.
The two main changes are in the portions allowed for proteins and grains.
For Kindergarten through 5th Grade, those eating are allowed 8-10 ounces a week, or a maximum of 2 ounces a day. For 6th through 8th Graders, they’re allowed 9-10 ounces a week. And for high school students, that means 10-12 ounces a week.
With the new federal guidelines, calories also have been reduced.
For Kindergarten through 5th Grade, it means a total of 550-650 calories per day. For 6th through 8th Graders, that total goes to 600-700 calories per day. And for students in high school, the total number allowed is put at 750-850 calories per day.
Those USDA changes translate into fewer calories, smaller portion sizes, and is designed to make student eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. And Chitwood adds, those food groups have been changed as well.
“Last year, fruits and vegetables were in one category. This year, they’ve been separated, and vegetables have been broken down into sub-categories.”
There’s more changes coming to the table in the years ahead.
Chitwood said half of all the grains being served this school year have to be whole grains, which are featured in items made with whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, whole cornmeal and brown rice. Next year, all of the grains have to be whole grains. Also next school year, the USDA will begin a program to reduce sodium in the school lunch programs, which is part of a 10-year plan.
The sudden changes in what’s on the school lunch menu has also caused concerns with other school districts statewide, as Chitwood found out after he talked with officials in Covington, Owensboro and far western Kentucky.
“I’ve talked to other food service directors in the state, and it’s an issue with them too. It’s a lot of change at one time for people,” he noted.
To address concerns about the lunch program changes, Chitwood said groups of parents, students, faculty and a lunchroom staff member have been formed at each of the schools in the district. He added those meetings began last week, and that the groups meet once a month to discuss what the concerns are, what the schools can offer, how the schools can stay within federal guidelines, and how the food items can taste better for students.
Chitwood said the USDA guidelines were designed for healthier eating choices for school lunch menus, and deal with problems that have traditionally plagued this region and other parts of the country, such as obesity and heavy use of sodium. Chitwood added he agrees with that — if only the portions served up by the federal government were spread out in smaller amounts.
“I like the theory and logic behind it. It’s good for our society. But I just wish they could have gradually phased it out over time. It would have made it easier for everybody. The schools, the cooks, the parents and the students,” he said.
By Jeff Noble / Staff writer
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