Children can eat more sugar, more fat and fewer whole grains under scaled-back school lunch rules approved last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue has argued that the changes were needed. Too much food was ending up in the trash, he said, and the rules were too restrictive.

Opponents countered that rolling back regulations isn’t good for children’s health.

James Degan, Janesville School District food service manager, noted the rule changes, but he has already moved on. He has bigger, healthier fish to fry and plans to stay the course with school lunch menus, for the most part.

The changes:

  • Under the Obama-era rules that took effect in 2014, all breads, cereals and pasta served to kids had to be at least 50 percent whole grain. Schools could apply for a wavier if they had trouble finding products. Now, schools don’t have to apply for a waiver.

“We did apply for the waiver for the first year,” Degan said.

He worried that students wouldn’t eat whole-grain pizza crust, sandwich bread and pasta.

He was wrong. The new foods took some getting used to, but students accepted them. After that first year, Degan didn’t apply for the waiver again.

“The companies have had time to reinvent themselves and their products,” he said.

Products with more whole grains have gotten better over time.

“I might consider going back to the old tortillas,” Degan said. “The whole-grain tortillas haven’t been very good.”

  • Under the 2014 regulations, added sugar and flavor were allowed only in skim milk. Now, students can have chocolate milk with 1 percent fat, as well.

That will increase the amount of fat and sugar in children’s diets. The amount of added sugar in 1 percent chocolate milk varies, depending on the brand.

The Janesville School District is part of a 57-district food-buying cooperative. The group gets the best prices if it sticks with one version of chocolate milk, either 1 percent or skim, Degan said. He hopes to do some taste testing with students before the cooperative decides.

  • Sodium levels had to be reduced significantly.

The 2014 rules were “very aggressive” on sodium, Degan said.

The rules required schools to cut salt levels by almost half by 2022. Purdue has extended the deadline to 2024. The 2014 rules required schools to then cut them again to even lower amounts.

“The last target was basically the amount of salt a heart patient would get in a hospital,” Degan said.

Overall, he doesn’t anticipate many changes in school menus.

“I don’t see any reason to take steps backward,” Degan said.

He and members of the cooperative are considering adding more restrictions by looking at “ingredients of concern,” including high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial preservatives, added sugars, artificial colors, bleached flour, and hormones and antibiotics.

Trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and added sugars have contributed to the obesity epidemic, and some people are sensitive to artificial preservatives and colors that are added to food, he said.

“We’re kind of copying what Minneapolis did,” Degan said.

The director of food service for Minneapolis Public Schools replaced processed foods such as tater tots and chicken nuggets with unprocessed potatoes and chicken.

That school district also tracks more than 20 “ingredients of concern.” They include those Degan mentioned as well as others, such as artificial sweeteners, MSG and bromated flour.

The local cooperative members are examining their order books to see what their alternatives are and if they can afford them.

Degan doesn’t think the changes will be cost prohibitive, considering the buying power the cooperative has.

To see a complete list of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ “ingredients of concern,” go to gazettextra.com/ingredients

Keeping kids fed for less than $3 per meal

During the 2017-18 school year, the Janesville School District earmarked $5.05 million for food service and served 1.78 million meals and snacks.

Using the full, unrounded numbers, the district spent $2.84 per meal or snack. That amount includes everything: the cost of labor and benefits, food, equipment, and administration.

For the 2018-19 school year, the budget is $5.2 million.

In Janesville, all elementary students are eligible for a free breakfast. More than half of all students are eligible to eat lunch for free or at a reduced cost.

Money for meals and snacks comes from a variety of sources, Degan said. They include:

  • $3.9 million from the federal government in the form of U.S. Department of Agriculture funds, grants and reimbursements.
  • $1.2 million from local sources. This money comes from the payment for milk and meals.
  • $116,000 from the state.

The federal money supports all children, not just those who live in poverty. Federal reimbursement rates are:

  • $3.39 per lunch for children who qualify for free meals. Breakfasts are reimbursed at $2.14 each for those children.
  • $2.99 per lunch for children who qualify for reduced-cost lunches. Breakfasts are reimbursed at $1.84 each.
  • 39 cents per meal for students who pay for lunches. Breakfasts are reimbursed at 31 cents each.

The state’s reimbursement rates are .0491 cents per lunch and .08106 cents per breakfast.

The district also participates in a federal program that allows school districts to offer meals to students in high-poverty schools. The district has 10 schools that qualify for the program.

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