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Patriot's Perspective: Raising a healthier generation of children

How’s it going?

This is a question I have been asked dozens of times from parents, teachers or just interested community members. They are asking me how the students are adjusting to the dietary changes the state set forth this year.

For those of you who need a refresher course, here is the short story.

In January 2012, at the direction of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a final rule to promote the health of America’s school children.

The rule establishes new, science-based nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and breakfast programs. These standards are based on the recommendations of doctors, nutritionists and other experts, and are designed to ensure that taxpayer-funded school meals reinforce the efforts of parents who are trying to instill their children with healthy eating habits and lifestyles in the face of the nation’s growing child obesity epidemic.

The new standards identify the healthy ranges for five categories of food — fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or meat alternatives, and fluid milk — as well as the healthy ranges for total calories, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.

For the grains and meat/meat alternatives components there are science-based, age-appropriate daily minimum quantities as well as weekly minimum and maximum quantities for total calories.

I think the students are doing OK with the changes. One change they see is that fruit is offered daily.

Last year we were required to offer two servings of fruit or vegetables a day. It could have been one of each, two fruits or two vegetables, as long as it was two servings.

This year we are required to offer both, a fruit and a vegetable, every day. And, students need to have at least one of them on their tray before they leave the serving line. In terms of vegetables, the students are seeing a larger variety being offered, and increased servings offered daily.

Another change the students are seeing is that our bread/grain offerings are becoming all whole grain. This includes things like breads, buns and pizza crusts. Gradually, as manufacturers develop new whole grain products, these will be incorporated into the menu.

The number of servings per week of bread/grains has changed a bit, but overall it has been well received.

There has not been a huge change in meat/meat alternatives offered except in the portion size offered. The original rule called for a smaller portion for grades K-5, but the same problem exists as in the grain category. We are waiting for manufacturers to produce, for example, different sizes of hamburger patties; therefore, at this point we are still offering the same size as in previous years.

The USDA has given us some flexibility for the current school year to allow these manufacturers to work through these issues.

The biggest challenge for the kitchen staff is menu planning. We must make sure we include all the required components so it will be considered a federally reimbursable lunch, while not exceeding limits set forth for calories, saturated fats and sodium.

Everything consumed for a day, including milk and all condiments, are calculated into the average daily calorie, fat and sodium counts.

We need to make sure we have not only a well-rounded meal, but also a meal the students will enjoy.

This is a year of transition, for everyone, including the USDA, the food service staff and the students. I truly believe the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, will help us raise a healthier generation of children.

(Patty Buell is food service director for the Pequot Lakes School District.)