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New regulations bring healthier food, challenges to Claremont schools

Claremont Unified School District cafeterias will be offering up a whole lot of healthy, thanks to new federal regulations.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been phased in over a two-year period, beginning with the 2012-2013 school year. As of this July, districts that wish to participate in the National School Lunch/School Breakfast programs must fully implement its provisions.

The act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December of 2010, aims to combat childhood obesity while improving kids’ overall wellness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of US children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012.

Here are the new guidelines.

A hundred percent of grains served in school cafeterias must be “whole grain-rich.” Students must receive a half-cup of fruits or vegetables with each meal. Entrees cannot exceed 350 calories, and they must contain 480 milligrams or less of salt. That’s an 80 percent decrease from the amount of salt allowed in school foods during the 2011-2012 school year.

Fat can make up no more than 35 percent of the calories in cafeteria foods, and only 10 percent of calories can come from saturated fat. Trans-fat is banned altogether.

When it comes to beverages, elementary schools can only dispense water and 8-ounce portions of unflavored low-fat milk, unflavored or flavored fat-free milk and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice with no added sweeteners. Middle and high schools can sell up to 12-ounce portions of milk and juice.

A raging food fight

The changes are supported by a variety of education advocates, including the National Parent Teacher Association. Other groups are in opposition to the changes.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents the people who make school meals, initially supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now the organization claims the nutritional changes are too expensive and kids just don’t like the new, healthier food. The SNA has asked Congress to authorize the Agriculture Department to grant waivers exempting schools that say they have lost money for six months from the new rules.

They would like to keep the whole grain-rich requirement at 50 percent, pointing to issues like that 100 percent whole grain pasta can easily turn into grainy mush. SNA members also saying most kids don’t want a fruit or vegetable with every meal.

“Forcing students to take a food they don’t want on their tray has led to increased program costs, plate waste and a decline in student participation,” according to an SNA paper emphasizing the organization’s position and talking points.  

The SNA is also fighting to keep the minimum sodium content that was allowed during the 2012-2013 school year—1,230 milligrams or less—which prevailed during Phase 1 of the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.

A number of members of the House of Representatives have likewise spoken out against the new regulations. For instance, Rep. Probert Aderholt (R-LA) has authored a measure that would grant states permission to ignore the new USDA provisions for a year.

“As well-intended as the people in Washington believe themselves to be, the reality is that from a practical standpoint, these regulations are just plain not working out in some individual school districts,” he said after the bill was approved by a House panel, according to a Boston Globe article.

Many nutritionists and health advocacy groups, by contrast, are fighting against any rollbacks of the new standards.

Nancy Brown, the chief executive of the American Heart Association, has pointed to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study, released in July, found that 70 percent of elementary and middle schoolers “generally liked the [healthier] lunch,” and so did 63 percent of high school students.

At a recent Kids’ State Dinner, honoring children from 50 states who won a national recipe contest, the First Lady made her views clear, according to an article on Politico.com.

“There’s a lot of money involved in feeding our kids at school,” she said. “We are currently spending $10 billion a year on our school lunch program…so it’s not surprising that certain interests are resisting change and trying to take us back to the old way of doing business, because for them there’s a lot of money on the line.”

CUSD embraces the challenge

Political dissent may be raging, but Director of CUSD Nutrition Services Rick Cota and his crew are too busy getting ready for the new school year to join the food fight.

Luckily, CUSD doesn’t have as far to go as some districts to meet the new requirements. In recent years, the district has made great strides towards providing a healthier menu. When Mr. Cota came on board in 2009, virtually 100 percent of foods served in Claremont cafeterias were processed. Since then, he and his crew have eliminated 70 percent of processed foods.

Mr. Cota will also continue his tradition of providing local produce like apples from Yucaipa orchards and contracting with local eateries to create healthy foods that complement the CUSD menu. Round Table will regularly provide pizza, complete with whole-wheat crust, and Peter’s El Loco will grill up made-to-order tacos.

The district’s fresh and local approach is above and beyond federal requirements, but Mr. Cota feels that CUSD kids deserve it.

“We feel better about serving them organically locally grown produce as opposed to something in a can that, God knows where it came from,” he said.

Still, Mr. Cota admits the new standards pose a challenge.

“The decrease of sodium is the biggest adversary of flavor for us,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of sodium in the food we eat everywhere, and now it’s been cut by 80 percent in school meals. It really impacts the flavor profile for anything. It’s been kind of tricky trying to figure out what we can add to food to give it more zip without giving it more sodium.”

The changes are also unfunded, as is the case with so many educational measures.

“We’re required to give more and more food and more choices, but unfortunately we’re not being compensated,” he said.

As a result, Claremont school board members were expected to vote Thursday on an across-the-board 50-cent hike on the price of school lunches at their gathering this Thursday. Previously, CUSD elementary school students paid $2.50 for their meals, El Roble kids paid $2.75, and high school kids paid $3. A similar uptick in meal prices is taking place across the country.

Your family may well qualify for the free or reduced National School Lunch program. The district’s 13th annual Food Tasting Faire is set for Wednesday, August 13 from 9 a.m. to noon at El Roble Intermediate School. Everyone in the CUSD community is welcome to come and taste new items that, if they prove popular enough, will make their way onto school menus this year.

It is also, Mr. Cota noted, a great opportunity for parents to fill out paperwork applying for help with school meal costs. An application may be found on the CUSD website (www.cusd.claremont.edu) by clicking on the Nutrition Services link under the Department tab.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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