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Salt Halt: Food service managers relieved restrictions won't go further for now
Kentucky School Advocate
By Matt McCarty
Despite some moves by the new administration in Washington, D.C., public schools across the Commonwealth still face a balancing act when it comes to feeding students: serving meals that not only meet federal nutrition standards but also are appealing to students.
“You can make it as healthy and so forth as you want, but if the kids are not eating it, (if) it’s not going in their bellies, it’s not healthy,” Estill County Schools Food Service and Nutrition Director Belinda Puckett said.
Puckett was among a group of Kentucky School Nutrition Association members who traveled to Washington, D.C., in the spring to lobby for guidelines that districts can work with.
“We kind of presented our struggles, what we’d like to see changed,” she said. “It’s definitely something we’ve been working and lobbying for.”
In 2014, schools were required to reduce sodium levels as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. A further scheduled reduction this year was put on hold by the Trump administration, which also will continue to allow schools to apply for waivers on whole grain-rich requirements and waivers to serve 1 percent flavored milk.
Dan Ellnor, plant manager for Jefferson County Schools and president of the Kentucky School Nutrition Association, said action on sodium is part of what the association was seeking.
“What the school nutrition association has requested,” Ellnor said, “is that they don’t go any further with sodium restrictions until they have solid science basis that will support it.”
He said some scientists say if schools have to reduce sodium too low they won’t be able to make the potassium target. “It will be impossible to reach a dietary amount of potassium at that level of sodium.”
“The amount of sodium they’re talking about is for a cardiac patient, not an 8-year-old child,” he added. “You’ve got an 8-year-old child that’s active in football or baseball, something like that that’s sweating, it could actually be a dangerous level of … not enough sodium in their system at (the most restrictive level).”
Julie Metcalf, the food and nutrition services director for Montgomery County Schools, said she’s glad the sodium levels remained the same. “I think where we are now, I think everything’s working fine,” she said.
Metcalf, who is the association’s public policy and legislation chair, said her district did some taste testing with students last year to see what new foods they liked. “Some of those items are on the menu this year.”
What students want
One area hasn’t changed within the new administration: Students are required to take a vegetable and fruit during lunch. That sometimes leads to food being thrown into the trash.
“We have quite a bit of waste,” said Carrie Sewell, kitchen manager for West Irvine Intermediate in Estill County. “Some days they have to take vegetables and they don’t want vegetables. At breakfast they have to take fruit, they don’t want fruit. They just want their cereal and toast or their pancake … that type of thing. They don’t want all that extra. We do have quite a bit of waste but not as bad as when it first started.”
Sewell said her district has learned what foods students like best and try to just use those items on the menu “to cut down on waste as much as we can.”
She said it’s harder meeting the federal guidelines at breakfast because there aren’t as many breakfast items to include on the menu. “The children will come out in droves for a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit but we cannot get one now that will meet the sodium guideline,” she said.
The vegetable and fruit requirement isn’t an issue for all students. West Irvine Intermediate fifth-grade student Haley Hall said she likes the school’s chicken nuggets and pizza, and “I really like their green beans.”
Ellnor said the school food and nutrition industry needs to be cautious going forward because if a district’s food service account goes into the red, the general fund has to bail it out.
“What we’ve seen in a lot of schools in Kentucky is where they’ve tried to implement some of these guidelines and the food goes into the trash rather than getting consumed and that’s what you don’t want to see is tax dollars going into the trash,” he said.
“The takeaway that most school board association members need to understand is they need to have a healthy food service account and the kids have to like what they eat and it has to be flavorful and it has to be healthy. We have to do it all. We don’t get to pick one or the other.”
The federal reimbursement from the USDA in the National School Lunch Program is based on the number of reimbursable meals served.
“Every time a child doesn’t eat with us, that’s money that we lose in reimbursement,” Puckett said. “We definitely want our students to eat with us and that’s why, not just me but I know all of us directors are constantly looking at our menu – what can we do to make the menu better … because we want them to eat with us.”
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