With cafeterias throughout Turlock Unified School District serving platefuls of rotisserie chicken, smothered burritos and barbecued tri-tip, one thing is for certain: the days of unappetizing and flavorless school meals are long gone.
Not only are these mouthwatering meals served throughout TUSD considerably tastier, but they are also healthier too—thanks in part to the national school nutrition program known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was signed into law by President Barack Obama five years ago in order to improve child nutrition throughout the nation. Among other goals, the law aimed to address America’s childhood obesity epidemic and reduce health risks for children by helping schools produce balanced meals with healthy foods.
The Act recently expired, on Sept. 30, and it is now up to Congress to take action to reauthorize the law or determine if changes need to be made to school lunch requirements.
“Certainly, there’s been some dialogue about changing a few of the requirements that are pretty restrictive,” said TUSD Child Nutrition Director Scott Soiseth. “We know it will be reauthorized, it’s just about how they reauthorize it.”
Soiseth said that one of the main lunchroom changes that was facilitated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the increase of fruit and vegetable offerings to students. Although TUSD was already serving fresh products, Soiseth said that this law allowed his department to enhance their inventory and quality.
As part of this regulation, students must be offered the five food components, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meats/meat alternates and fluid milk. They are allowed to decline two items, but they must select at least half of a cup of either the fruit or vegetable component.
“We’re introducing our students to fresh kiwis and strawberries,” said Soiseth. “It has cost us more money, but for the children it will be well worth it in the long run.”
Additionally, as part of the law, Soiseth said that it was “difficult” to convert the school district’s menu into one that only had whole grain products—which are grains that consist of the intact, ground cracked or flaked grain seed—by the July 2014 deadline. However, his department still managed to incorporate delicious whole-wheat crust pizzas, whole-wheat hamburger buns and whole-wheat tortillas that students enjoy.
“We went out to the local food industry, including restaurants, and found that these companies were doing some great things with whole grain,” said Soiseth. “So we’re still 100 percent whole grain and it’s working out well for us.”
Soiseth said that another main component of the law that affected TUSD was the “very strict” sodium reduction requirement for school meals. Under this regulation, school lunches were required to meet a certain level of reduced sodium by an established deadline.
For example, high school lunches must have achieved less than 1,420 mg of sodium by July 2014, and are required to achieve less than 1,080 mg by July 2017, and less than 740 mg by July 2022. Soiseth said that TUSD was one of the few school districts to meet the first year target.
“This was because of the fresh products that we were using—the fresh, free range chicken for example,” said Soiseth. “That’s really the only way you’re going to meet this second and third target. You’re going to have to move further away from processed products and get to fresh products.”
However, Soiseth said that he viewed the third and final sodium target level that requires less than 740 mg of sodium by 2022 as “unrealistic.”
“That’s the same sodium as if you were a heart attack patient in a hospital,” said Soiseth. “They are saying that there is no way that we’ll be able to meet that and I agree with them there. So we are addressing Congress about that.”
Overall, Soiseth said that he has received nothing but positive feedback regarding the healthier and tastier menus as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. He said that the biggest compliment he has received was not given verbally, but shown in cafeterias throughout the District.
“They’ll stand in line now at some of these areas for the whole lunch to get that quality product, whereas students usually don’t do that,” said Soiseth. “That’s a great compliment.”