New federal rules proposing less sugar and salt in food served at public schools may be hamstrung by a lack of workers to prepare those meals and lingering issues with actually getting bread, vegetables, fruit and meat in the door.
“We’re still having a lot of challenges,” said Lisa Johnson, a director of nutrition services for Highline Public Schools in and nearby Burien, Washington.
Johnson’s suburban district, with more than 17,000 kids, hasn’t fully staffed up after the early days of the pandemic and still finds some healthy food options hard to come by.
The USDA’s rules would require schools to make the changes over the next six years. The department is now taking feedback on its proposal before finalizing its plans.
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School food officials say that the proposed changes are well-intended, but without a serious financial investment in the staff tasked with cooking those healthier, nutritious meals, they won’t become a reality.
What challenges are schools facing?
It’s already difficult to access products that aren’t low-fat or low-sodium, a recent survey from the School Nutrition Association shows, let alone those that are more healthy, and new standards could hike meal prices for families who aren’t able to afford lunches under current rules.
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Proponents of the new proposed regulation argue it aligns with the latest science on nutrition and would “give kids the right balance of nutrients for healthy and appealing meals,” the USDA’s website reads.
“We really see this just as a next step in a fairly long standing partnership in support of healthy school meals,” said Cindy Long, the USDA’s administrator of Food and Nutrition Service.
Long called the move “critically important” to prevent diet-related disease in the U.S.
New national research published Monday from the American Medical Association suggests a federal law in 2010 requiring schools to serve healthier meals to students led to lower body mass index rates, or decreases in the rates of kids and teens who were obese or at risk for obesity. Some of those changes were rolled back during the Trump administration.
What is the USDA proposing for school meals?
The proposed changes include:
- Decreasing sodium gradually, and overall by 30%, by fall 2029;
- For the first time, decreasing the amount of weekly added sugars to 10% of total calories by fall 2027; and
- Eliminating access to flavored milk for younger students by 2025
The USDA expects to issue a final rule “in time for schools to plan for school year 2024-25.”
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Not enough cooks in the kitchen
The number of cafeteria workers a school needs varies based on its size, but data from the School Nutrition Association shows there’s a dire need for more cooks and other staff nearly everywhere.
A recent survey of school meal program directors conducted by the association shows 93% of them are so short on workers they’re struggling to run their cafeteria, and 89% of schools struggled to find food items that meet current rules for school meals, which are more lenient on sugar and salt.
The SNA’s Diane Pratt-Heavner said to meet the new standards, more items will have to be made from scratch.
“Staffing is a huge issue for school meal programs, and it will impact their capacity to meet additional nutrition standards,” Pratt-Heavner said.
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The Chef Ann Foundation, which encourages schools to cook more meals from scratch, is among those trying to solve some school cafeteria woes. CEO Mara Fleishman said the foundation recently launched a fellowship program for existing school food leaders “who envision themselves as future directors of scratch cooking operations and advocates for serving fresh, healthy meals to students,” with help from the Whole Kids Foundation and the state of California.
Some schools that cooked many meals from scratch turned to packaged foods during the pandemic to give students meals to take home when classes shifted online. Many haven’t turned back due to labor and supply shortages, Fleishman said.
Last week, several Chef Ann Foundation fellows, including a sous chef for the Virginia Beach Public Schools Office of Food Services, visited schools in several cities across the nation as part of their hands-on training.
How do staffing and the quality of meals intersect?
Opponents of the USDA’s proposal argue the federal government needs to consider the struggles local schools are already facing before adding new demands.
The regulations will create “unworkable nutrition standards that will hamstring schools,” House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Republican Leader John Boozman of Arkansas said.
USDA officials said they recognize those challenges and continue to support schools to address those concerns.
“We certainly recognize the past few years have been particularly challenging … as we’ve been coming out of COVID,” Long said. “It’s one of the key reasons why we’re taking a very gradual approach.”
Contact Kayla Jimenez at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.
Story Credit: usatoday.com