School meals getting leaner and healthier

New nutrition guidelines aim to improve student health and performance

0 | Children, Congress, Nutrition

Students eating lunch at Whittier Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan.

Students eating lunch at Whittier Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan.

— Complaining about school lunches has been a time-honored tradition for most students in public schools. A bland sandwich on white bread, canned vegetables warmed over on a steam table, a dab of pudding and a small carton of milk — it all had a certain “institutional” quality that rarely left anyone asking for seconds.

But in schools like Whittier Elementary in Kansas City, Kan., officials say that’s starting to change.

“We hear less complaining now,” said Geri Cunningham, who is now in her fourth year as principal at Whittier. “Prior to this year, our lunches were prepackaged — prepared elsewhere in a central kitchen and brought to us in a sealed pack and heated.”

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Geri Cunningham, principal at Whittier Elementary in Kansas City, Kan.

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Today, students go through line and take their choice of entrees, some of which are now being made from scratch. There are also more choices of fresh fruits and vegetables. And starting soon, much of that will include organic produce from local farmers in the Kansas City metro region.

“I have that in the works,” said Karla Robinson, director of nutritional services for Kansas City Unified School District 500.

“I’m speaking to farmers now. We think that our first purchases are going to take place within the next couple of weeks. And we’re going to work with these farmers that are now developing their crops that are going to be ready for us in the spring when new things come out. But right now they’re going to have things like Swiss chard, for example. And these are all organic products, and we’ll be able to incorporate those within the meals that we serve,” Robinson said.

The changes have made a noticeable improvement in the quality of school meals, Cunningham said.

“So even the corn — the corn today tastes a whole lot different than the corn that’s been cooked, packaged and then heated again,” she said.

Most of the changes are the result of new federal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that governs the national school lunch program. The guidelines were intended to make school meals leaner and healthier by following the latest nutritional standards to include fewer calories, less protein and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

In USD 500, where 88 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals — and where, for some students, the food they eat at school may be the only balanced meal they eat all day — district officials are going further by incorporating healthy eating as part of an overall strategy to improve student learning.

That’s no small task in a district like Kansas City where, according to 2011 student assessment scores, roughly one-third of all students are below proficient in reading and math.

Breakfast in the classroom

Several academic studies in recent years have demonstrated a clear link between healthy nutrition and academic performance of students.

In 2005, for example, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that food insecurity — “the limited or uncertain availability of or inability to acquire nutritionally adequate, safe and acceptable foods due to financial resource constraint” — is strongly associated at early grade levels with lower academic performance in reading and math for both girls and boys. It’s also related to a decline in social development among boys, as well as greater body mass index gains for girls.

Other studies have suggested that eating breakfast may improve cognitive function related to memory, test grades and school attendance.

It’s often said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But as any parent of school-age children knows, it’s also one of the hardest to fit into a busy schedule, especially for middle and high school students whose school days typically begin earlier. Fixing breakfast at home requires getting up earlier. And even when breakfast is offered at school, students who rely on bus transportation often can’t get to school early enough to take part.

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Karla Robinson, director of nutritional services for Kansas City Unified School District 500.

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In Kansas City, and several other districts in Kansas, local officials are confronting that dilemma with a program called Breakfast in the Classroom, and Robinson said it’s showing results in KCK classrooms.

Instead of lining up in the cafeteria before school to order breakfast, breakfast is delivered directly in the first-hour class. Students and teachers alike spend the first 10 minutes eating breakfast at their desks as they also get ready for the day’s lessons.

“We’re delivering it directly to the kids,” Robinson said. "The bell rings and they pick up their breakfast, they all eat and 10 minutes later it’s done and they go on with their day. They’re more focused (and) there are fewer problems in the nurse’s office.”

“We did have a nurse who emailed (recently) and said that she was a little hesitant at first with the Breakfast in the Classroom, but she said, ‘I have to say, it is awesome.’ She has had not one student come to her and say they had a stomach ache, as she had had in previous years, and she said she was sure it was because they were eating breakfast.”

Breakfast in the Classroom is a pilot project this year in one high school, three middle schools and nine elementary schools. The meals are free to all students. The additional cost to the district is minimal, Robinson said, because in each of the schools where it’s being done, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals anyway. A $207,000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation provided additional funding, enabling the district to absorb the rest of the cost in its overall nutrition budget.

Robinson said providing the meals for free to all students also helps remove the stigma that some students feel when they’re identified as a free-meal student.

Before starting Breakfast in the Classroom, Robinson said only about 37 percent of the students were taking advantage of school breakfasts. In middle and high schools, participation ran only about 15 percent. Now, in the buildings where it’s being implemented, participation is near 100 percent.

Not everyone is happy

The new nutritional guidelines were mandated by Congress in 2010 in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The law represented the first changes in child nutrition programs in 15 years, according to the Kansas State Department of Education, or KSDE. It also included an increase in federal subsidies of 6 cents per-meal for each meal served that meets the new standards — the first increase above inflation that schools had received in more than 30 years.

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Weeks after the guidelines went into effect, some students from the district of Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp made a music video protesting the guidelines. The video — called “We Are Hungry,” spoofing a pop song by the band Fun — has been viewed nearly 800,000 already, and last week was covered widely in the national media and on The Daily Show. Read our coverage and watch the video here.

Like many federal programs, however, the new guidelines and additional funding came with additional strings and regulations, some of which are not sitting well with some parents.

Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness for KSDE, said her office has received complaints from some parents, especially the parents of student athletes, regarding the new calorie limits.

Previously, federal standards established a minimum calorie per meal standard but did not impose a maximum. The new standards set caps of 550 to 650 calories per meal for students kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 calories per meal for grades 6 through 8; and 750 to 850 calories per meal for grades 9 through 12. Some of those maximums are lower than the previous minimums.

“We have had some calls, especially from parents of athletes where schools had been giving additional portions and subsidizing them,” Johnson said. “Now they can’t do that. The school districts had determined they wanted to provide bigger portions and they were paying for that with taxpayer dollars.”

Schools still have the option of providing additional portions to students who ask for them, Johnson said, but they cannot count those additional portions as reimbursable meals.

Johnson said she has also heard from Kansas ranchers who expressed concerns that the new standards might call for cutting back on meat products. But Johnson said those concerns were unfounded. The new standards call for two ounces of meat or meat-substitute in each meal, the same as before.

Johnson said she supported the changes because they more accurately reflected current standards for nutrition and health.

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