By Madelynn Coldiron
Belinda Puckett, school food service director for Estill County Schools, would like the folks responsible for the new federal school nutrition guidelines to come and look at the garbage cans in her schools’ cafeterias.
“We’re serving more and it’s going in the garbage. They (students) have to take a fruit or a vegetable and it’s going in the garbage,” she said.
PHOTO: Cloverport Independent Elementary students decide what looks good. Those French fries, by the way, are baked, not fried.
The changes have been radical, said Gail Hale, who oversees food services at Cloverport Independent Schools. “I think when they implemented this, they didn’t think it out. It’s caused us a great concern.”
A state-level school food service official says the situation is improving and that students are becoming more accepting of the new nutritional standards that kicked in last year, boosting the profile of whole grains and fruits and veggies, cutting calorie counts and restricting sweets.
“It’s just a time of transition and change and I think anytime that occurs, it takes time,” said the state education department’s Valerie Crouch, who provides technical assistance and training to food service directors.
The number of Kentucky schoolchildren eating school meals took a dive last year at about the time new federal nutrition standards kicked in. Sabrina Jewell, president of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association, said her own Henderson County district saw a 2 percent decline and some districts have seen a drop of as much as 10 percent to 20 percent – which translates to big losses in federal reimbursement dollars for those meals.
Butler County saw a 9 percent drop at one point last year, food service coordinator Hazel Short said, and in the initial weeks of school this year, “it doesn’t seem like it’s picked back up at all schools.”
In Marshall County Schools, food services director Beth Cunningham saw the first decline in meal participation last year since she began working in that position in 2005.
Jewell said the effects of the situation have been felt more deeply in small districts, where small changes make a big difference and where the budget is not large to begin with.
The biggest challenge, she said, “is the speed at which we have had to adopt this … kids don’t like change.”
There was little time to transition to the new menus so kids could adjust, Jewell said, and food suppliers hadn’t perfected the offerings that would meet the new guidelines. The products have since improved, she said.
The general drop in participation in school meals statewide last year was enough to trigger a federal requirement that the state survey school food service directors about the reason. However, there were too many variables to pinpoint a single factor, according to Crouch. Among those variables were a federal regulation that required paid meal prices to be raised in many districts and an increase in schools joining another federal program that provides free meals to all kids.
The worst of the drop statewide was felt during the winter months, according to state education department figures, but by the end of the year participation seemed to be rebounding. It helped that the federal government relaxed some restrictions in mid-year, Crouch said.
Effect on budgets
The drop off in participation in some districts is coupled with the increased cost of food – a double whammy for school food services.
“Fresh produce costs more than canned or frozen,” said Jewell, whose district’s bill for produce doubled last year.
Puckett said the added cost to her district last year was $72,000, while the number of school lunches served dropped from 340,837 to 317,952, which she calculates is a loss of $46,767 in federal reimbursements.
The budget for Marshall County’s food services “hit a rock-bottom low” at the end of the school year, Cunningham said, bailed out by the influx of payments with the new school year.
In higher-income Oldham County, schools have seen a drop in participation that has affected the food service budget, said Pam Greer, director of school nutrition.
“We’re not as comfortable as we used to be a couple of years ago,” she said. “We’re this year watching our pennies and watching our labor and watching participation …trying to be very careful on our spending.”
Greer said she thinks overall economic conditions in that county have caused the drop, with more kids packing lunches from home to save money, rather than the new nutrition standards being the culprit.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from parents who have noticed the meal pattern … I think when they actually come in and eat with their child we get a different take,” she said. “They’re very excited and they like the direction we’re going in.”
Period of change
KDE’s Crouch said the key to getting kids on board with the new meal patterns is in how school food service personnel present the food. Food service directors have been trying new recipes and food displays to encourage kids to eat, Jewell said.
“It really is the same food, just a little different presentation,” she said.
Students in meal lines are seeing fruits and veggies in colorful combinations and lots of healthy choices, such as yogurt parfaits, boxes of raisins and whole-wheat wraps.
“You make it eye-catching and appealing and it’s going to pop, and they’re going to take it,” Greer said.
Oldham County hopes to expand a pilot program that began last year, using student volunteers to taste-test menu items and spread the word about healthy eating and the rationale for the changes.
“My assistant director made the comment, ‘We’re not just serving the children, we’re educating the children in making good choices,’” Greer said.
Cloverport’s Hale said she’s anxious to see whether participation will pick up this school year. “They are getting used to the whole grains,” she said.
Cunningham said she thinks the national publicity about the changes last year affected the way kids in Marshall County received them. “The meals did not change that much – it was just the publicity about it that I think stirred kids to bring their lunch … Hopefully, this year we can get over that hurdle and get the kids back to eating,” she said.