By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News
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And now, new rules for student meals are creating a new challenge for school cafeterias.
The legendary “mystery meat” entree or macaroni and cheese slopped on a plastic tray are gone, replaced with fresh stir-fry to order, taco bars, chicken and cheese quesadillas, sandwich bars and fresh, locally grown vegetables on an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
North Olympic Peninsula school districts, like other public schools in the U.S., have been making major changes to student meals after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The act is a federal attempt to improve nutrition and decrease childhood obesity by requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school meals.
School meal programs must meet federal guidelines to receive funding for student meals.
On Dec. 3, Sequim Sodexo food services supervisor Laurie Campen gave the Sequim School District Board of Directors an overview of what the changes look like on the plate, and to the district and student pocketbook.
Sodexo Inc., a food service corporation, holds the contract to manage the food programs for Sequim and Port Angeles schools, Clallam County’s two largest school districts.
Smaller districts manage their own food programs but are held to the same, increasingly challenging standards.
Some of the solutions that have been introduced in Sequim schools — such as “Stir-Fry Friday,” during which students select their preferred vegetables and meat from a bar, and each student’s selection is cooked individually to preference — have become a favorite among students and teachers alike.
The fresh stir-fry meal is so popular that students will wait in line for 20 minutes, she said.
Some time leniency is allowed for students to finish their meals before returning to class, Campen said.
A similar omelet breakfast bar will be introduced, which is expected to be as popular as the stir fry, she added.
In Sequim, lunch is provided for $2.10 for an elementary school student, $2.25 at the middle school, $2.30 at the high school or $3.50 for a teacher or other adults.
About 46 percent of students in the district get free or reduced-price meals, according to the state report card.
The federal nutrition requirements always included caloric minimums, requiring at least 633 to 825 calories, depending on grade level. The new guidelines include caloric limits, which range from 650 calories to 850 calories.
Some of the strict guidelines are making it a challenge for cafeteria staff to plan meals, keep kids full and keep the cost within the budgets of students and the school district.
“The food cost is raised significantly, adding 10 to 15 cents per meal. Vendors are charging more for their products,” said George Hulett, Sodexo district manager.
By 2014, all grains served to students must be whole grains, according to the act.
Whole grain breads add an additional 5 cents to the cost of meals, Hulett said.
The guidelines set a low limit on the servings of grains that students can be served as part of the meal, which are often an affordable stomach-filler for hungry children.
For example, the food service cannot offer rice on a burrito or bread sticks with spaghetti because both count toward the federal limit on grains in a lunch, Campen said.
However, she added, students can purchase for 25 cents an a la carte item, such as rice or breadsticks, in addition to their carefully planned and measured school lunch.
High school athletes and fast-growing teenage boys who have higher caloric needs can purchase individual items a la carte — or buy a second meal, she said.
Students on free or reduced lunch meals cannot get the a la carte items or an additional lunch for free, but they do have options to fill their appetites.
“There is no limit to fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Instead of the old federal guidelines requiring schools to offer a serving of fruits and vegetables in each meal, the new rules require those fruits and vegetables to be served to each student, whether they want them or not.
The middle and high school students are more resistant to the changes because their dietary habits are already set, she said.
“The elementary kids are more accepting,” she said.
Not only are the caloric limits more restrictive, but the act’s sodium limits, which were halved in 2011, will be halved again by 2020.
Hulett said that although natural salt content of foods is taken into consideration, meeting the future sodium limit will be challenging.
Some of the new rules can be baffling, Hulett said, like the requirement for schools to offer two flavors of milk at breakfast — such as plain and chocolate.
“It’s the government,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.