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Proposed upgrade to school meals adds fruits, vegetables and subtracts sodium, calories

Proposed upgrade to school meals adds fruits, vegetables and subtracts sodium, calories

A Turlock High student grabs a nutritional spicy chicken sandwich in the cafeteria at lunch time in August 2010. Beginning in the 2010/2011 school year, an inside food court with Fresh Mex food, ne...


POSTED January 18, 2011 9:24 p.m.

President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture want American kids to be healthier. To help the nation’s students on their way to better health, the USDA has proposed updating the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs for the first time in 15 years.

"The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children – and our nation," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration's effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and wellbeing of all our kids."

The proposed updates, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals, and also limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories and trans fats in meals.

Turlock Unified School District Food Services Director Scott Soiseth is happy to hear that an emphasis is being made on nutrition in schools, but also worried the mandatory changes would be a burden to the district’s limited budget.

“It’s definitely something that is good for the kids,” he said about the meal updates. “We just have some concerns about the cost.”

To help pay for the updates, federal reimbursements would increase by 6 cents per meal, however, the USDA estimated the increases in food and labor costs would be about 14 cents for each reimbursable school lunch and about 50 cents for each reimbursable breakfast by 2015.

According to Soiseth, the cost of school lunches charged to paying students — now at $1.75 — would have to increase significantly to help defray costs.

“Our concern is (the children) won’t eat, with the working poor we have here and the cost of living so much higher in California,” Soiseth said.

The biggest change the update would bring to TUSD lunch menus is the mandatory one cup of fruits and one cup of vegetables that must be offered to every student every day.

“Right now it’s a choice. We offer fresh fruits and vegetables for breakfast and lunch, but (with the update) they’d have to take it,” Soiseth said. “There’d be a lot of waste.”

The TUSD is a little ahead of the nutrition game, as they implemented the “real fresh” program in 2006. The program cut out candy and sodas from all school sites and brought in more fruits and vegetables. The district has already begun to lower the sodium content of meals, offer only low fat milk and is using more whole grains.

“We’re using quite a bit of whole grains, in our pizza and hamburger buns. We’re also looking at whole grain pastas,” Soiseth said. “In six months, 50 percent of our grains will be whole grains.”

While nutrition is a priority for TUSD, Soiseth and his colleagues are planning a trip to Washington, D.C. in March to voice their concerns about the updates to USDA officials and elected representatives.

The USDA is seeking input on the proposed rule from the public through April 13. Those interested in reviewing the proposal and offering comments can do so at www.regulations.gov.

Whether the updates are mandated as written or changes are made to account for tight school budgets, Soiseth is confident the TUSD will continue to provide nutritious and tasty meals to its students either way.

“We’ll adjust and make it work,” he said.

To contact Kristina Hacker, e-mail khacker@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2004.

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