Love and Law in the Lunch Room
Sep 12, 2017 12:50PM ● Published by Arden Haley
Despite challenging federal regulations and tiny budgets, the folks behind school meals at AACPS work tirelessly—even when school is out—to feed students in Anne Arundel County
When it comes to discussing school lunches among friends, there’s a lot of waxing nostalgic. Inevitably, someone who grew up a few decades ago will remember their childhood friend’s mother who was a cafeteria cook, dishing out homemade comfort foods, free of processed ingredients. They’ll remember the love and passion that went into the food because the meals were cooked from scratch, and decry that school lunches just aren’t as good or as nutritious in the new millennium.
But facts (and history) don’t lie. The truth is, school meals—which include not only lunch, but also breakfast, afterschool snacks, dinners, weekend, and summer meals—have never been healthier, and those lunch ladies (and men!) still have the same passion for feeding students. If you look at today’s lunch menu for an elementary school in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), you’re likely to see Baked Fish with Cilantro Lime Rice, Spicy Chicken Salad, or Orange Chicken with Rice. Of course, the menus haven’t done a complete 180—AACPS offers four entrée options to its elementary school students and three to middle and high schoolers, so you’re also likely to see pizza, cheeseburgers, and tacos.
These meals, however, aren’t similar to restaurant fare or even necessarily what you’d make at home. Everything served, as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or the School Breakfast Program (SBP), is held to strict nutrition standards that are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and overseen by Congress. Any district that participates in federal child nutrition programs such as NSLP—Anne Arundel County Public Schools is one of them, as is Prince George’s County Schools, Queen Anne’s County Public Schools, Talbot County Schools, and many other public school districts in Maryland—must meet these nutrition standards, or they lose the government funding that keeps these multimillion-dollar programs in the black.
So, what’s the deal then? How is it that school meals still have, in some circles, a bad reputation? AACPS Food & Nutrition Services Supervisor Jodi Risse, RD, SNS, who has been with the district for 23 years, has dedicated her career to changing the perception of school meals. She has also provided opportunities for area students to try new foods and ensured that children who need food never go hungry.
“There is an overwhelming amount of data that indicates that hungry children can’t concentrate on their studies,” Risse says. “School meals are an integral part of the academic process and must be available to students, regardless of their ability to pay. One of our secondary school principals frequently recounts a student telling him that he couldn’t focus on exams because he was just plain hungry.”
School Meals: A Historical Primer
The concept of ensuring school meals to students so they can succeed in other parts of their life is right in line with the original intent of the National School Lunch Act (NSLA), which President Harry Truman signed into law in 1946. At that time, the concern about school meals wasn’t that they were unhealthy—it was about making sure that the American student population didn’t suffer from malnutrition. In fact, during World War I, one of every three U.S. military recruits was rejected because he was malnourished or had defects from being undernourished as a child. School meals intended to fix that problem. In addition, the School Breakfast Program (SPB) was established as part of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966.
Of course, over the years, the food served has evolved. In the 1950s—long before there was any concept of having nutrition standards—lunches were rich and protein-heavy (think: cheese meatloaf and sausage shortcake—two actual dishes served). A cultural renaissance in the 1960s allowed for “ethnic” foods that were hardly adventurous, such as enchiladas, but then-and-now-staples like peanut butter and jelly and fish sticks were common, too. School meal operations began to take cues from restaurant trends in the 1970s, adding hamburgers, oven-fried chicken, and French fries to the menus.
The 1980s and early-’90s saw the expansion of fast food trends, even allowing fast food operators to set up shop in schools. This was the Reagan era, in which slashed budgets forced schools to source cheaper food or outsource production altogether. As a response to that, in the 2000s, health advocates began to eye school meals, pushing more nutritious fare, such as grilled chicken and barbecued pork. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) passed Congress, calling for stricter nutritional standards than ever seen before. In 2017, these are still the regulations that school meal programs operate under, though the federal budget hasn’t truly ever returned to where it used to be—schools receive about the same amount of money for a complete meal with fruits, veggies, whole grains, milk, and lean protein that you might pay for your daily latte, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, an organization that represents some 57,000 cafeteria workers.
However, “Regulations, while challenging, do set minimum standards for all,” Risse says. “We here in Anne Arundel County strive to exceed minimum standards, going back years to working with Department of Defense contractors to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to the more recent implementation of our unlimited fruit and vegetable salad bars.”
AACPS Food and Nutrition Programs
Despite a perception that school meals are the same-ol’, same-ol’ nuggets, pizza, and burgers, Risse and her staff—which includes four registered dietitians—constantly work to include new menu items and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the district has a surprising number of programs that help students receive nutritious food, even when school isn’t in session.
Taste-Testing.“Our goal is to offer meals that are tasty, affordable, healthy, and student-approved,” Risse notes, and in that vein, the staff regularly tests new products before adding them to the menu. The testing locations rotate from school to school, so a wide variety of students are able to provide their input. Last year, taste testing resulted in adding Sriracha BBQ Chicken Sandwiches, Chicken Cheesesteak Subs, Italian Sausage Pasta Bake, and Chicken Alfredo with Garlic Bread Sticks to the menu.
Tasting of the Rainbow.A major goal for AACPS Food and Nutrition Services is to introduce students to fresh produce that they might not be familiar with. Enter the “Tasting of the Rainbow” initiative on the first Friday of each month, which features unusual fruits and vegetables, such as pea shoots, purple sweet potatoes, and arugula. “We tell students it might be their favorite new food!” exclaims Hazel Hamrick-Ostiguy, café manager at Waugh Chapel Elementary in Gambrills. Sometimes, she adds, they make personal appeals for students to try the item for their favorite café worker—“it works more often than you’d think,” she adds. For each tasting, students watch a video that introduces them to the farmer, where the food comes from, and a few fun facts about the fruit or vegetable. “We also have select locations participate in school-wide ‘Tasting of the Colors’ events,” Risse says. “Most recently, Edgewater Elementary hosted a Tasting of the Yellow/Orange Day and students sampled several fruit and veggies of that color.”
Farm to School.AACPS began buying local food for school meals in the mid-2000s and, in the 2015–16 school year, the amount purchased totaled a whopping 338,020 pounds. Fresh produce that went from local farms in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, to being prepped and served as part of a school meal included apples, arugula, strawberries, cucumbers, corn, lettuce, watermelon, nectarines, peaches, green peppers, pumpkin, spinach, squash, and tomatoes.
Summer Meals.Food security is a serious issue for low-income children when school isn’t in session. Slightly more than seven percent of children in Anne Arundel County live below the poverty line ($23,850 for a family of four), according to the Census Bureau. Additionally, 16.3 percent—that’s more than 20,000 children—in the county are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. AACPS looks to bridge that gap with the Summer Food Service Program. During the summer, sites (most notably in low-income areas) are open to the public where anyone between the ages of 2 and 18 can receive a free breakfast and/or lunch. It also operated a mobile meals service that delivered food throughout the county. In summer 2016, AACPS served a whopping 82,260 summer meals in the county.
Child and Adult Care Food Program.Access to food during evening hours can also be a challenge for low-income students, so AACPS participates in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) that provides afterschool meals and snacks to students at participating sites, which are typically in needy areas. The sites needn’t be a school, though it can be—AACPS operates the program out of locations such as the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA, as well as in schools. In the 2015–16 school year, AACPS served more than 192,400 meals as part of CACFP.
What’s the Future of School Meals?
In the past couple years, you might have heard a bit more about school meals on a national level, as it became a bit of a political hot topic. Technically, Congress was supposed to reauthorize HHFKA in 2015 and politicians on both sides of the aisle—particularly the Former First Lady Michelle Obama—were vocal about either rolling back or strengthening nutrition standards as part of this “Child Nutrition Reauthorization” process. Alas, as often happens in Washington, D.C., Congress didn’t come to an agreement on a reauthorization bill by the end of 2016, and therefore, the programs continued to operate under the 2010 regulations. But in spring of 2017 and under the Trump administration, the new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation that relaxes standards for the upcoming school year in three key areas: whole grains, salt, and milk. States will be able to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in meeting the 100 percent whole-grain-rich standard although, even with the changes, at least half of the grains offered in schools must be whole grains. Schools will no longer need to hit the strictest target for lowering sodium in foods offered to students. And meal programs will be able to serve students 1 percent flavored milk instead of fat-free flavored milk. AACPS continues to look to the future, though, with an eye on strengthening their department. “We plan to continue to update our equipment, increase staff training, work to elevate all students and eliminate all gaps for student achievement,” Risse says, “as well as promote the ‘Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child’ model of wellness.” And don’t forget about those loveable lunch ladies (they now prefer the term, “school nutrition professional”) because they’re still in the cafeterias. For so many, feeding children is a passion that they feel makes a big difference in their communities. “The time I spend with them as they are checking out at the cash register has allowed me to really get to know them and appreciate them,” Hamrick-Ostiguy says. “We know how important it is to encourage students to establish healthy eating habits and that we feel it’s one of the most important things we can do for their futures.”
School Lunch Nutrition Standards
There’s been a lot of talk in this article about the strict nutrition standards that school lunches must meet. What, exactly, are those nutrition standards? Before the 2017 rollback of standards in the areas of whole grain, sodium, and milk, compliance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (an 81-page document that’s available on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s website) considered a “reimbursable meal”—i.e. for the school to receive reimbursement for the meal from the government—all school lunches must have:
caloriesContained between 550 and 650 calories for K–5 students; 600–700 calories for students in grades six to eight; and 750–850 calories for high school students.
sodiumHad less than 935 milligrams of sodium for elementary school students (K–5); 1,035 milligrams for middle schoolers (6–8) and 1,080 milligrams for grades 9–12, as of July 1, 2017. For comparison’s sake, a sandwich made with two slices of wheat bread, 2 ounces of deli turkey meat and 1 ounce of cheddar cheese rings in at around 830 milligrams of sodium—and that’s without any sides or a beverage that make up a complete meal. HHFKA also mandates sodium reduction targets to 640 milligrams for K–5, 710 milligrams for 6–8 and 740 milligrams for 9–12 in the next 5 years.
saturated fatLimited saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories, and completely eliminate trans fats.
fruit & vegetablesIncluded at least one cup of fruit and one cup of vegetables at the high school level, though students only must take half a cup. In elementary schools, meals must include at least a half-cup each of fruits and veggies. Schools must offer specific types of vegetables, such as dark green, red/orange and legumes, throughout the week.
whole grainHad whole grain-rich products, such as bread, tortillas and wraps.
If a meal met these requirements, then the district received anywhere from 36 cents to $3.22 in return from the federal government. These reimbursements make up the bulk of AACPS’ Food and Nutrition Services’ budget of $28 million—a budget that is self-funding, separate from the district’s general funds and free from any county funds.