For hungry Monroe County schoolchildren, today's lunch special is: choice.
In response to criticism over changes to its school lunch content rules, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing away with daily and weekly maximum limits on the amount of meat and grains that may be served in federally subsidized meals, through the National School Lunch Program, in which the Monroe County School District participates.
The recently announced change comes after federal lawmakers complained to the agency that their constituents' kids weren't getting enough to eat, and was unanimously praised by county officials involved in children's nutrition. The change is effective immediately, and won't affect lunch prices locally, according to Deb Stecklein, the food service supervisor for the Monroe County School District.
"This is a wonderful change that allows me to plan menus that children have enjoyed in the past, and that people accept as items that go together, like, for instance, spaghetti and rolls," Stecklein said. "We were having a hard time serving them together, because there are grains in both. This allows us to serve them at the same meal again. We were seriously affected by the regulation changes when we revamped the menus in August."
The USDA regulation changes came into force earlier this year, in response to concerns about increasing levels of childhood obesity, and were welcomed by children's health advocates around the country. The rules set limits on salt and calories, and mandate more whole grains, and at least one fruit or vegetable per meal. Gradually, however, a consensus has emerged that some tweaks are needed.
"The old USDA guidelines were from a different time, when kids were underweight, so we overcompensated with more calories," said Wendy Holifield, a registered dietician with the Monroe County Health Department. "Now we have children who are obese and getting more calories than they're burning off, due to their exercising less. We need to look for lower-fat alternatives, with higher quantities of protein, vitamins, and minerals."
The decision won't affect food served outside the government-subsidized program.
Students can still purchase other "a la carte" food and snack items in school lunchrooms, though Congress ordered the USDA two years ago to regulate those as well. Those rules have yet to be established.
"It just means we can provide more choices," said Holifield, who has helped the School District with menu planning in the past. "Now we can look at beans and legumes as a protein source, rather than animal protein, which is higher in fat. We can even look at tofu and tempeh. When it comes time for them to start changing the menus again, I will happily offer my services to make sure that kids will still be receiving their USDA recommendations for each food group, and vitamins and minerals," she added.
Deb Stecklein is already eager to begin implementing the changes.
"This is a very good thing," she reiterated. "All these changes have been positive, but the maximum limits on meats and grains were a little restrictive. They were the one thing making menu planning difficult. The new directives give us more latitude to create colorful, healthy meals."