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With the signing by President Barack Obama of the new school nutrition standards last month, school districts across the nation are expressing concerns about extra costs and changes to menus.
But in Shelby County school officials say they have tried to stay well ahead of the curve, maybe even enough to make Michelle Obama proud.
Shelby County Public Schools already meats some of the new standards that the USDA is currently evaluating and will release in to the schools, with timetables for implementation as early as this summer, to designate caloric content, fat content and broader nutrition guidelines.
"There are more guidelines coming, and it will be interesting to see what comes down from them," said Evell Coomer, the food and nutrition service coordinator for the district. "But we've already made some changes, and some of the changes coming down we've already done."
In her report during Thursday's school board meeting, Coomer showed the board how the district exceeds current standards and how the number of students eating lunches has continued to increase.
For the 2009-2010 school year, the district fed an average of 4,674 students including those in preschool and Head Start. This year that number has increased dramatically.
Using October as a comparison, Coomer noted that the district fed an average of 5,430 students, an increase of 16 percent.
And those students are choosing from healthier options.
Eating a healthy lunch
The district, Coomer said, is working toward reaching the bronze level of the Healthier US School Challenge, which is national system designed to measure how schools are meeting the nutritional needs of students.
"We meet the criteria already, but our menus have to be looked over in Frankfort," she said.
The biggest differences between bronze, silver and gold awards of distinction come in the percentage of students participating in lunch, the sodium content and physical activity provided.
By meeting the new, more stringent standards, the district can move toward earning bronze and maybe moving beyond.
One of the new standards, Coomer said, is the addition of water as choice of beverage, along with milk.
"We've been doing that since before I got here five years ago," she said.
The district is also well ahead on offering whole grains.
"We're already listing at least four whole-grain menu options everyday," she said. "And we have been for a while."
And the district is sneaky with its whole grains, giving students healthy options when they don't even realize it.
"Our pizza is a 51 percent whole grain crust," she said. "And our corndogs are made from chicken and have five grams of whole grains in them. Even our burritos are cheese and bean with a whole grain tortilla."
Coomer said that maybe she shouldn't have let that slip out for the students to see, but she added that most people don't know the measures the district takes to ensure a good, healthy meal.
"Maybe we ought to toot our own horn a little more," she said.
The district also meets several others from the new standards:
And most of these changes were made before the requirements were announced
Not only did Coomer and district officials commit to making those changes, they've also started focusing on offering better breakfasts in January, which didn't have the same nutritional guidelines.
"We started adding protein to every breakfast offering," she said. "We want it [breakfast] to stick with them, and it's been working. I've already had one principal say they have noticed an improvement in their students attention spans."
Offering selections that students from ages 6 to 16 recognize and like while making sure they are healthy choices can be difficult.
But, like the whole grain pizza option, Coomer appears to have found ways to make them more nutritious.
Hamburgers patties, for instance, have only five grams of fat.
"They're not hamburgers like you see at McDonalds or other fast food restaurants," she said.
And there's a secret healthy ingredient.
Because they're so lean, they need something to keep them moist.
"They add apple sauce to keep the patties moist," Coomer said.
And the menus are ever evolving; so finding new offerings can be difficult.
A buying group
"We're part of a buying cooperative through OVEC," Coomer said. "We have a semiannual meeting with the directors from each of the different schools, and that's where we decide what new items we'll offer."
Coomer said once foods have cleared the screening requirement of cost and nutrition, the group will taste new products over two days.
"You'd be surprised how bad some of them are," she said jokingly. "But a lot of them are really, really good."
After tasting the products, officials discuss them and decide what to bring into the menus.
For instance, one new item that recently passed those requirements was the three-cheese breakfast round.
"It's really delicious," Coomer said. "It has a whole-grain crust, and the protein in the cheese meets a meat alternative. I think the students really like it."
But that's not the only way new items are added to the menu.
Currently Coomer is trying out a hummus recipe from the Collins Culinary Arts program.
"I think the spicy hummus is something the high school students will really like, so we're trying to see if we can incorporate their recipe."
She also added that a recipe contest in the program has unfortunately been rescheduled twice because of weather issues, but she hopes something can come of that, too.
When the new changes are completed, a minimum calorie intake will be included along with a maximum.
That could change the way calories are counted for students. Currently, the maximums are calculated as one-third of the recommended calorie intake.
"We calculate the amount based on children taking all five components of the lunch that we offer," Coomer said, "and that rarely happens. They are required to take three, and we certainly encourage them to take all five, especially the little ones."
Those calorie counts even include condiments.
"If they have a hamburger, we include the mayonnaise packet that's available with it," she said. "And not every student takes those types of things."
However, Coomer said the choices she and her staff provide boil down to helping the student make good, healthy choices.
"We want to help teach them how to eat well and stay healthy," she said. "Plus, what we do enhances their performance in school, and that's really what we all want to do."