New School Meals: Nutritious and Delicious

National School Lunch WeekBy Jeanie Donovan
Going through the cafeteria line this year, Texas kids will notice some major changes to the foods on their school lunch tray.  Thanks to the new USDA School Nutrition Guidelines, public school students will be offered more whole grains, leafy green vegetables, and fresh fruits than ever before.  In addition, school districts and state agencies will receive additional federal funds to implement the nutritious changes.
Why change now?
Prior to this year’s improvements, federal school meal guidelines did not include any limits on sodium, trans fat, or calories served to children at school.  With 32 million students participating in the program each day, updating the standards for school meals was an opportunity to slow the growth of childhood obesity rates and to ensure that the next generation is healthy and successful.  In addition to getting more nutrients and vitamins in their lunches, school cafeterias will now be exposing students to the nutritious ingredients and eating patterns that will help them maintain a healthy weight.  Texas was ahead of the curve in the effort to improve school lunches and efforts have been underway to improve school meals served in the state since 2004.
Will kids like the healthier meals?
Before making the guideline changes, the Food and Nutrition Services division at the USDA got feedback from more than 130,000 stakeholders during their public comment period.  School food directors, parents, nutritionists, and others were encouraged to submit their thoughts on the proposed changes.  USDA also held taste testing sessions with students across the country to see what types of foods and recipes were most popular among the kids who would be eating them.  Although it may take time for some students to adjust to the new foods, school food service directors report only minor complaints from students.  The reduced-calorie meals may present a problem in some instances, as they may not be enough to fuel a student through the school day and an after school practice or game.
Can schools afford to purchase and prepare healthier foods?
It is no secret that healthy foods often cost more than less healthy foods.  School food service departments operate on tight budgets and there is concern that schools will struggle to afford the healthier ingredients.  The new guidelines may also require updates or replacement of kitchen equipment and new trainings for food service staff.   As a result, the USDA has increased the federal reimbursement rate for cafeterias serving school lunches.  When a school is certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) as being in compliance with the new guidelines, they will receive an additional six cents for each meal they serve.   TDA has also received additional federal funding for the to increase their support of school food service departments making the healthy transition.
With increased federal reimbursement and additional support from TDA, Texas schools have been set up to succeed in their efforts to fuel healthy, happy students.
Check out a sample “before-and-after” menu for elementary schools here!

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