Local school officials praise decision to delay lunch health standards

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Jim Dayton
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

JANESVILLE—School lunches can't be nutritious unless students eat them.

If school districts focus too much on taste, they can fall out of compliance with federal health standards. If they focus too much on health, whole-grain pastas and reduced-salt soups remain uneaten or find their way into the trash.

Striking that balance can take time.

That's why local school nutrition officials praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to delay new health standards that were scheduled to take effect soon.

“If food is ending up in the trash cans, they're not getting any nutritional benefit. No calories, no vitamins, no minerals,” said Sheila Price, Milton School District nutrition team supervisor. “There's ways to strike that happy medium.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Monday that a requirement to reduce sodium levels in meals will be delayed until 2020. It was scheduled to begin in the 2017-18 school year, The Associated Press reported.

Perdue will also maintain a waiver program for districts to avoid compliance with whole-grain regulations. All grains at school lunches must be 50 percent whole grain, but districts can receive exemptions through the program.

Meeting the whole-grain requirement could be particularly difficult for some regional staples.

Whole-grain grits aren't common in the South, and neither are whole-grain tortillas in the Southwest, Janesville School District Nutrition Manager Jim Degan said.

As for sodium, legislation under Barack Obama's administration implemented targets that gradually decreased over time. The first target was helpful and will remain in place, but reaching the next target would have been tough because salt occurs naturally in most foods, Degan said.

With an extra three years to meet the next sodium requirement, the food industry should be able to create products that meet guidelines and still taste good, he said.

“In 2012 when I first tasted whole-grain pizza, it was terrible. It was like eating cardboard,” Degan said.

“Now in 2017, there are really good quality pizzas that are low sodium and have whole-grain crust. But it took five years to develop a formula for students to eat.”

Getting students to eat lunch can be challenging. Participation in public school lunches has decreased over the last several years, but it could reverse course because of this week's changes, said Lisa Corrao, who handles lunches for Edgerton as a district manager for Taher Inc.

The nutrition managers for Janesville, Milton and Edgerton did not plan on making any changes before the end of this school year.

By fall, however, Degan said he would explore the new possibility of serving 1 percent flavored milk. Currently, only skim milk is served.

When Janesville schools test a new food product, they offer samples to students. If students like it, the district asks its distributor to stock the product.

That can take six months to a year. But Degan said he enjoys using student feedback to make food decisions.

During Craig High School's lunch period Wednesday, students had lukewarm reactions to their cafeteria options. The food was good, but it could be better, they said.

Sophomore Deborah Tearman wishes the pasta would have more spice. Freshman Zach Denzer would prefer more choices.

Samantha Olvera, a junior, enjoyed the fruits and vegetables. Overall, the rest of the food was “not too bad,” she said.

Perrice Miller, a freshman, generally doesn't eat hot food at Craig because he doesn't like the taste. He sticks to subs and produce, but even the fruit has room for improvement, he said.

“It's all right. It could be better,” Miller said. “They could add more fruits, blueberries or raspberries, anything like that.”

Degan said the Janesville School District has worked hard to comply with requirements while offering tasty food. Since he began working for the district in 2002, foods have gotten much healthier and tastier.

“We've made some great strides. I think we need to stay the course and keep working at this,” Degan said. Our children's health will be the benefactor of it.”

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