School lunches are leaner and greener this year, as new federal regulations reduce pasta, bread and meat and add more vegetables and fruits.
Gone is the popular general’s chicken over rice in Hamilton Township schools: “The sodium, sugar and calories, even with brown rice, were off the grid,” food service director William Trackman said.
In their place are a lot more vegetables and fruits — which are making meals bigger — but may take some time to catch on.
Gone is the chicken ranchero at Mainland Regional High School — at least until food service director Heidi Hibbs can find a smaller chicken patty to top with provolone cheese and turkey bacon.
“The first day, we had just two students at the salad bar, but today we had 50,” said Hibbs, who also works at Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts and Linwood and Somers Point schools. Sweet potato fries, which replaced regular french fries, are not catching on as quickly.
While there will be no more pepperoni on the pizza in Lower Township schools, the district serves broccoli as an alternate topping.
“The pepperoni had too much salt and fat,” Lower Township food service director Robert Morris said.
The new regulations, part of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, took effect this year. Schools can use up existing supplies, but starting in October they can receive an extra 6 cents per lunch from the federal school meal-reimbursement program if they meet regulations.
That’s an extra $1,200 per month for Trackman’s budget, so he’s phasing in new menus in Hamilton Township.
State Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Lynne Richmond said about 60 districts already have submitted their new menus and that the department will move as quickly as possible to certify them. Department officials also will visit 25 percent of the districts this year to certify that they are in compliance.
Trackman said one problem is that suppliers had only a couple of months to develop products that meet the new portion-size regulations. Bread, burgers, hot dogs and chicken patties all had to be made smaller to meet the new limits.
Schools used to buy hot dogs that came eight to a pound; now there are 10. A burger must be reduced to 1.75 ounces if schools want to add a thin slice of cheese, bringing it to the maximum 2 ounces for protein.
Thomas Beck, food service director in Egg Harbor Township, said having the regulations start with a new school year made it a bit easier.
“It was an opportunity to give them new menus without them really realizing what was happening,” he said. “But I did have a conversation with a high school student about the pizza. We had to scale it down.”
Lower Township has been phasing in healthier foods for years, Morris said, and has had some success by offering variety.
Thursday was taco day at the Carl T. Mitnick School in Lower Township. Cafeteria workers gave students a tray with a taco shell filled with meat and corn. Children got their own milk and a choice of applesauce, apples, plums or bananas for fruit, and celery sticks, pepper slices and green salad for vegetables.
Every school meal has five components — protein, grain, milk, vegetable and fruit. In the past, students could just pick any three, meaning they could skip fruits and vegetables entirely. Now they must take at least one vegetable or fruit.
Ava Figueroa, 7, ate her banana first, then tackled the taco.
“Yesterday, I had an apple,” she said.
Alexandra Wallace, 7, chose applesauce. Seth Rapici, 7, got the green salad and mixed it in with his taco. Bill Pfaff, 7, got corn, but threw most of it away.
“I ate a couple of pieces,” he said.
The potential for extra waste is a major concern, especially as costs for produce rise.
The Midwest drought has driven up the price of produce, and school food service operations are expected to be self-sufficient, with no additional support from taxpayers. Some districts raised their meal prices this year to compensate for an expected rise in costs.
The state Department of Agriculture,which oversees school meal programs, sets a maximum price each year, although many districts charge less. This year’s maximum lunch prices — $4.25 at high schools, $4 at middle schools and $3.75 in elementary schools — is a 25-cent increase over 2011-12. Maximum breakfast prices stayed the same at $2.50, $2.25 and $2. Students eligible for reduced-price meals also pay the same as last year, 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
This year, the federal government will reimburse districts $2.86 per meal for students who get free lunch, $2.46 for reduced-price lunches and 27 cents for students who pay for lunch. That does not include the additional 6 cents, and districts with more than 60 percent of students in the free-meal program get more money.
Parents remain a huge influence, and food service directors are reaching out to parents to support healthy eating habits
On Wednesday, Trackman brought some sample meals to back-to-school night at the Joseph C. Shaner School in Mays Landing, where parents were happy to see the larger servings of fruits and vegetables and liked the new prepackaged salads. But they were still concerned about sugar levels in chocolate milk and some breakfast cereals.
Trackman said the sugar has been reduced a bit to meet guidelines, and while they offer plain milk and Cheerios, students rarely choose them.
“I’ve had a few parents say the children have come home from school hungry, and I said to ask them if they are eating their fruits and vegetables,” he said.
Morris said they offered only plain milk one day at the Mitnick School last year and so many students just threw theirs away the janitors complained about the weight of the trash bags.
Students who brought their own lunch at Mitnick did not always have healthy choices, either. Only one child of six interviewed had fruit. Many had cookies and chips or other prepackaged snacks. One child threw away two unopened juice boxes.
Contact Diane D’Amico: