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Changes in cafeteria lines: how new federal nutrition guidelines are affecting Valley schools

Last week, the superintendent of the Washington West Supervisory Union, Brigid Scheffert, released a letter stating her concern for students across The Valley who return home hungry as a result of the implementation of new federal nutrition guidelines for school food service programs.

“This has got to be the worst case of serious unintended circumstances resulting from the best of intentions I have seen in my 28 years in public education,” Scheffert wrote.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, which went into effect this fall at schools across the country, require schools to include at least one fruit and vegetable serving in each meal. Additionally, the regulations state that any bread or pasta offered to students be rich in whole grains, and the USDA has banned trans fats and imposed grain, sodium and calorie limits for students at different grade levels.

The new regulations are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and, according to the USDA’s website, they “align school meals with the latest nutrition science and the real world circumstances of American schools.”

The science is there. The logic is there. But are the new regulations actually working?

PORTION SIZES AND PAPERWORK

For Cheyl Joslin, the director of food services and chef at Fayston Elementary School, the new regulations have had little effect on her cooking. “We’d basically been following the new regulations before they existed,” Joslin said. “We’ve always used tons of veggies in our meals.”

Likewise, for Paul Morris, the head chef at Harwood Union High School, the new regulations account for “a lot of things we’ve already been doing,” he said, such as cooking primarily with whole grains.

For both Joslin and Morris, the biggest change brought about by the new regulations has to do with calculating portion sizes. “It isn’t too much of a hassle,” Joslin said, but the mathematics involved in making sure a school does not exceed the new limits on what it can feed its students does require extra time and planning.

“We’re spending more time filling out paperwork,” said Paul Morris, “when we’d rather be spending that time in the kitchen cooking for our kids.”

BUYING LOCAL BREAD

In her letter, Scheffert worries that the new regulations will hurt local farms and businesses that supply the school systems with food, as the ingredients in their products are harder to quantify and, therefore, harder to figure into the newly imposed nutrient and calorie limit counts.

As a result, Scheffert wrote that she fears “we will need to purchase more prepackaged or processed food because the nutrient information is already located on the side of the bag or box.”

Thankfully—at least for Joslin—this is not the case. “I’ve been working with the Farm-to-School program for the past six years,” Joslin said, and she has a food-buying guide that contains nutrition information for different foods that has allowed her to continue to source many of her ingredients locally, including lettuce from Small Step Farm in Waitsfield and 700 pounds of beef from Flint Brook Farm in Roxbury.

“We don’t use as much Red Hen bread now,” Joslin said, because of the new grain restrictions, “but that’s really the only supplier I’ve cut back on.”

SALAD BAR AUTONOMY

At Harwood Union, perhaps “the biggest change” in cafeteria lines has been to the salad bar, Morris said. The salad bar used to be entirely self-serve, but because of the new grain restrictions, the school now has to portion out certain items such as pasta salad.

The salad bar setup has become more complicated and controlled, and “we’ve noticed less students are using it,” Morris said, speaking to the issue of youth autonomy as it relates to the new regulations.

“By the time kids are in high school, they should be able to make smart food decisions based on what their bodies need,” Morris said matter-of-factly, and Scheffert agrees.

“We should be teaching students how to make healthy choices […and] to achieve balance and moderation in food selections necessary for their individual needs,” Scheffert wrote in her letter.

GRADE-LEVEL LIMITS, HUNGRY ATHLETES

With the new regulations, however, students’ calorie consumption is limited according to their grade level. For students in kindergarten to fifth grade, students are allowed up to 650 calories at lunch, in grades 6 through 8 they can have 700 calories, and in grades 9 through 12 they can have 850 calories.

Due to the new calorie limits, “a lot of parents are saying the kids are hungry,” Joslin said, “but I don’t see how they could be, at least at the elementary school level,” she said. “We put out so much food.”

At the middle school and high school levels, however, where students are at vastly different stages in their physical development, calorie limits could become an issue. Moreover, “there are a lot of athletes [at Harwood],” Morris said, “and they need to stock up before practices and games.”

“Our cross-country runners expend a huge amount of calories during training and meets, and not being properly fueled is dangerous to these young adults,” Scheffert writes in her letter, emphasizing the inherent issues of standardized legislation when dealing with a wide variety of student needs.

FLEXIBILITY AND MOVING FORWARD

According to Scheffert, the federally mandated changes fail to consider not only the differences between individual students but also “the vast differences between a state like Vermont,” in which Farm-to-School programs provide students with fresh, nutritious eating options and “other states” that rely more heavily on processed, fatty foods.

“Luckily, we live in an area where people are educated and know how to feed their children,” Joslin said. The new regulations “maybe don’t apply to The Valley,” she said, but Joslin understands how they could make a huge difference in states with much higher rates of childhood obesity.

With or without the new regulations, “we’re still committed to feeding kids in the healthiest, most creative ways that we can,” Morris said.

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