Schools begin implementing new nutrition standards

By Pauline Liu
The newest battleground in the war against childhood obesity is now being waged in school cafeterias across the country.  New nutritional standards are being phased in at schools with federally subsidized meal programs, including at Margaretville Central School.

“There is a diabetes and obesity epidemic among school aged children and the school, by providing healthy meals, will be a part of the solution,” said MCS cafeteria director Connie Mathiesen. School districts that fail to comply with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandate, could eventually lose some federal and state reimbursement for their meal programs.

Will school cafeteria staffs be turned into food police to make sure students eat what is federally mandated? “We don’t ‘police’ what they choose,” said Mathiesen. “We encourage them to try them. The kids don’t always take what is offered. They can refuse.” School Superintendent Tony Albanese explained the effort to comply with the mandate is an ongoing process and the school’s staff is providing support to make it work.

Learning process
“I am certain there will be bumps in the road,” Albanese said.  “We will take one day at a time and make adjustments were necessary. As we learn more about the effects of this new mandate, we will voice our thoughts more fully about the matter.”

The mandate is the result of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law by President Obama in December of 2010. The mandated nutritional standards are to be phased in over a three-year period, with much of it to be implemented this fall.

“By September, in order for a meal to be reimbursed, a child has to chose either a fruit or vegetable to put on the tray and 59 percent of the grain that will be offered has to be whole grain,” said Mathiesen.

Healthier choices
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, whole grains are unrefined grains which offer better sources of fiber and more nutrients than white bread. By this fall, lunchroom favorites such has chicken nuggets and French bread pizza will have to contain whole grain in order to remain on the menu.

According to Mathiesen, 270 students eat lunch at school and 95 also have breakfast there. MCS has an enrollment of 410. Federally subsidies pay up to $2.84 for each meal for children who qualify, but she did not specify how many children are in the program. Under the law, schools lunch programs are to be audited for compliance every three years, so keeping good records of cafeteria inventory will be key.

Keeping track
“I keep production records that are required by the state,” said Mathiesen. “The records help me with meal planning and production.  The production sheets tell me for instance, if the kids like oranges or apples better by the numbers that they take on a given day.” 
However, success will be based on dishing out nutritious foods that even the finickiest kid will eat. 

“I have to find grains that they will eat,” she said. “The cereals are already reduced sugar and with whole grains. The snacks are supposed to be sensible snacks.”

Mathiesen, a married mother of two children who attend MCS, and became the school’s cafeteria director last fall. She has prior experience in food service as the former director of hospitality services at Mountainside Residential Care Center. She began phasing in many of the mandated foods shortly after her arrival at MCS.

Foods provided
“I don’t believe we will have a problem complying with the mandates.  The USDA will assist schools with meeting the mandates by providing foods that we will be offering through their donated foods programs,” she said. “They provide foods such as fresh fruits, reduced fat cheeses and beef

She has already met with the school’s faculty and board of education to discuss the nutritional changes. Now, she is seeking support from parents.

“I think parents should be aware that these changes are occurring and to encourage them to eat their fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” she said. Mathiesen said she and her counterparts in Delhi and South Kortright central schools want to meet over the summer to cook up some ideas for creative meal plans.

The goal is not only to have schools provide more nutritious meals, but to see that children don’t go hungry, since statistics show that 17 million American households have difficulty putting food on the table.

Studies have also shown that well-fed children have better concentration and can perform better in school. So it can be said that what’s at stake is both literally and figuratively food for thought.