Tastier School Lunches Coming After Rules Eased

By MARGARET REIST / Lincoln Journal Star

White flour tortillas and pasta might be making a comeback to Lincoln Public Schools lunch lines in the near future.

And for that, students who’ve been missing them can thank Congress, which eased stricter nutrition regulations for school lunches as part of a massive year-end spending bill approved last week.

LPS Nutrition Services Director Edith Zumwalt is happy to see the changes, which suspend lower sodium levels slated to take effect in 2017 and allow schools to ease up on the amount of whole grains in school foods.

“There’s a lot of good things about the regulations, but this little bit of tweaking will be good,” she said.

John Skretta, superintendent of Norris Public Schools who has been nationally recognized for his work to make schools healthier places, also is pleased.

And, perhaps, a tad mischievous.

Skretta tweeted news of the school lunch changes along with a picture of an indulgent confection from the Nothing Bundt Cake store sent by a Norris family.

It was a holiday gift, but students shouldn’t get their hopes up.

“Regrettably, it does not appear (the Bundt cakes) will be on the menu,” he said. “I do not foresee any cream cheese frosting or raspberry cake being served.”

That might be true, but less strict whole grain requirements could make a difference.

At LPS, for instance, whole grain tortillas aren’t popular, nor are dishes made with whole grain pasta, Zumwalt said.

LPS, which recently won a national award for its healthy lunches, will keep its whole grain buns, bread and rolls, but might go back to the traditional macaroni and cheese and tortilla wraps that are more popular with students, at least for the time being.

Zumwalt is not sure just how many changes students will see yet this year, in part because LPS already has purchased many of the whole grain products.

“It won’t change tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve already bought stuff.”

Now, schools must apply to the Nebraska Department of Education for an exemption, showing that complying with the 2014 regulations would be a financial hardship.

Norris contracts with the Minnesota-based Taher Inc. for food services, and Skretta said he will defer any decisions about menu changes to the company.

LPS and Norris aren’t the only places happy to have a little more wiggle room with the controversial nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama, which began being phased in two years ago.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and many of the food companies that produce the foods used by schools, pushed for the changes, though the American Heart Association opposed backing off on further lowering sodium.

The changes are a compromise with House Republicans, who wanted to allow schools to opt out of the requirements altogether.

Schools must comply with the regulations to receive federal reimbursements for the free- and reduced-price lunch program.

The new nutrition requirements have caused a significant amount of hand-wringing.

School food nutrition directors must balance healthier offerings with cost and making the food palatable enough that students will buy the lunches.

Schools already had to lower sodium content from about 1,500 milligrams to between 640 and 740 milligrams, Zumwalt said. Until the spending bill passed, schools would have had to further lower sodium levels in 2017.

That’s a tough shift, especially when students are still eating higher-sodium foods at home, she said.

Skretta agreed.

“Your food school people want to be able to offer students a range of choices that include healthy alternatives that also are tasteful,” he said. “That can be a challenge if you almost entirely eliminate salt.”

The changes passed in the spending bill put the sodium requirements on hold until “the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.”

The year-end spending bill won’t be the last time Congress takes up school lunches. The overall law governing child nutrition policy expires next year.

Although Skretta supports the latest changes to the regulations, he’s a proponent of requiring schools to serve healthier meals. The overriding goal — to offer more fruits and vegetables to students — hasn’t changed, he said.

Much of the impetus to ease up on whole grain requirements is that food companies don’t offer quality products, especially whole grain pastas, which can be mushy or hard to cook.

“We need to give the industry time to catch up,” he said.

And changes must be realistic, said Skretta, who illustrates his point with marshmallow Rice Krispies treats. Those purchased from manufacturers are relatively low in calories and are OK eaten in moderation, he said. Under the federal guidelines, though, those served at school must be made with whole grain cereal.

“You will see such food in a food service program, but the likelihood of encountering it on a store shelf as a consumer is nil,” he said. “We need to make sure the ways in which we develop restrictions for food service reflect realistic and attainable goals for nutrition.”