By CORRIE PELC, Valley Community Newspapers writer
The school lunch line has come a long way over the years. Gone are the corndogs and French fries, and in are much healthier options like salad bars and soup. And the ‘ole school lunch standby, pizza, has gotten a makeover as well – now it’s made on a whole grain bread with a light marinara sauce and part-skim cheese.
“People think sometimes pizza is bad, we get a bad rap for that, but they get a healthy pizza here,” said Brenda Padilla, manager of the Nutrition Services Department for the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD).
According to Padilla, over the past few years SCUSD has been implementing a number of changes in school lunches, including more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Students also have access to a fresh salad bar every day.
“Of course, we want them to eat it. So we’re introducing things to get them used to seeing them, things like spinach and kiwis,” Padilla said.
These changes helped the district prepare for the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new rule, announced this January, that brings school nutrition meal pattern requirements in line with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). Padilla said the new regulations “change our meal patterns more than they have been changed in the last 15 years. We’re required to serve a certain amount of things: that being meat, meat-alternate, bread, grains, fruits and vegetables, and dairy milk.” She said the new regulations also look at sodium and calories.
San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD) is working proactively to make changes to its school lunch program that will put it in line with the new regulations, said Director of Food Services Monique Stovall.
“We already offer plenty of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables for our families,” she said. “We’re also working very, very closely with our food vendors to make sure that the foods we already serve meet the requirements of the regulations.”
Additionally, Stovall said that SJUSD’s Food Services Program follows the SHAPE (Shaping Health as Partners in Education) California nutrients and menu planning program, which requires the district to have an even more stringent nutritional guidelines.
“That means that we also look at fiber and sodium much more closely than the regulations require, so students are getting a pretty healthy meal,” she said.
Better choices = Increased prices
As most people know, eating healthier comes with a slightly larger price tag. To help offset rising costs in school lunches, recent federal regulations are requiring all school district in the United States to raise their lunch rates to meet an approved rate, according to information on SCUSD’s Website, www.scusd.edu. The site states that SCUSD raised its rates, starting Jan. 9, by 25 cents to $1.50 per lunch.
Padilla said the rise in prices is through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010.
“There is a section in there, ‘Meal Price Equity,’ that does require districts to bring their full-price meal rates up,” Padilla said. “The rational is to get closer to what the Federal government reimburses us for the free rate. A lot of districts already have been incrementally increasing their paid lunch rates over time and those of us who hadn’t needed to do it. We were leaning that way anyway, but now that that regulation came out, we want to be in compliance so we did raise ours to ensure we are in compliance.”
SJUSD raised lunch prices over two school years, Stovall said, bringing its current lunch prices to $2.75 for elementary and $3.25 for middle and high schools.
“We were able to make assessments and make the adjustments in two phases to hopefully soften the impact on our families and set us up for several years to come so they don’t have to see an increase every single year,” she said. “We do not anticipate having to increase our prices, even with the new regulations, for hopefully at least another five years.”
The extra funds generated from the increase in prices will help benefit the meal program, according to Padilla.
“The meal program is a partner in education because we all know kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. They need nutrition, so that money will go back in to help us,” she said.