By GLENN RUTHERFORD
There was a time when few people, with the exception of mothers, of course, paid much attention to school lunches.
They’d give the young ones a quarter for lunch each morning, or slip a peanut-butter sandwich and an apple into a brown paper bag and send the little ones off to reading, writing and cyphering.
Those were the days when there were
just two kinds of milk — white and chocolate. And if you didn’t brown-bag your meal, your alternative was to stand in a quick-moving line for what school kids all across the nation called a “plate lunch.”
But all that has changed in recent years, and this school year it’s changing even more.
Juanita Bisig, director of food service for schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville, wants parents of school children to know that the lunch room diet is far healthier, far more nutritious — and far less fattening — than it has ever been before.
“This is a direct response to the problem of childhood obesity,” Bisig said last week in a telephone interview.
She was referring to the new regulatory requirements set down by the U.S. government in a document called “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.”
The new regulations were made final earlier this year, and the changes are sweeping and significant, Bisig noted.
In the past there were some nutrition and caloric requirements for school lunches, but they applied universally to students in grades kindergarten through 12. The new regulations divide the students into three grade groups — kindergarten through five; six through eight; and nine through 12.
What it means, she said, is that there are specific calorie requirements for each age group. For instance, lunch for grades kindergarten through five should contain 550 to 650 calories. For grades six to eight, the number of allowable calories rises to 600 to 700; and for grades nine to 12, the calorie range is 750 to 850.
And how those calories are delivered is being regulated, too.
“Your going to see different portion sizes — vegetables and fruit groups will see an increase in portion size,” Bisig explained. “And popular items such as chicken nuggets and patties have to be reformulated to have whole grain breading.
“We’ll also be serving baked and oven-roasted chicken instead of fried chicken,” she said. “And there will be less use of white potatoes — fewer fries and tater tots — and more dark, leafy greens and salads.”
And milk? Only one percent milk will be served, though chocolate milk will be available — as long as its fat free.
“It’s not just here, it’s happening all over the country,” Bisig noted. “In addition to the calories, there are regulations for minimum and maximum grain requirements, too.”
It’s all made Bisig’s job — and the job of school nutritionists and lunchroom workers across the archdiocese — a bit more complicated. But it’s complicated for a good reason.
“It’s resulting in a far healthier menu,” she said. “Each year we spend a lot of time working on menus and this year it’s taking a little more time than usual. We’re still planning some menus, but for the most part people are going to see healthier lunch items — more chicken salad, more whole grains and chef salads and a lot more fresh fruit.”
The school lunch program for the archdiocese involves “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Bisig noted. “In USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) commodity foods, such as canned fruits and vegetables, sliced American cheese, we get about $325,000 worth of those, and the fresh fruit and vegetable program through the Department of Defense provides another $50,000 worth of food.”
So, will the students like the new menus?
“The truth of the matter is, kids get used to what we serve them,” said Bisig. “We’ll still have some of their popular items, the pizza and nuggets and patties.”
But they’ll be in smaller portions and they’ll show up on the menu less often.
The cost of a lunch this year will be $2.45 — up just a dime from last year.