While “there is no doubt” that revamping school lunches will benefit children’s health, the speed with which schools are having to implement the new rules has made compliance extremely difficult in the short-term, according to one child nutrition director.
Speaking at the Whole Grains on Every Plate conference in San Antonio last week, Byron Sackett, child nutrition director at Lincoln County Schools, North Carolina, said: “The end goal is wonderful, but a lot of us feel like it has just happened too fast.
“We know it’s the right thing to do and I’ve got no doubt that it will work, but we needed more time to implement it.”
By the time the regulations came out in late January, he said, half the products that had been tested ready for the start of the 2012/13 academic year in his school district didn’t comply with the new standards (which kicked in in July 2012), and contracts had already been negotiated.
“Bid season was well underway by the time the standards were published.”
There was also an issue with limited availability of certain products, particularly products rich in whole-grains, he said.
“Soon whole grain products will be the new norm, availability will increase and prices will come down, but in the short-term, it’s been really hard on us and tremendously hard for manufacturers.”
‘My grandkid don’t like brown bread…’
Under the new rules, at least half of the grains served in school lunches must be ‘whole grain-rich’, extending to 100% of grains at lunch and breakfast by summer 2014, he said. “We had already made a lot of progress with switching to whole grains, but it’s very hard to do this overnight.
“You have to have support from all the stakeholders, including children, parents, local media, the faculty and the board of education. You can’t have the board out there badmouthing what you’re trying to do or you’ll get comments such as ‘my grandkid don’t like brown bread’.”
It’s effectively an unfunded mandate
Meanwhile, testing whole grain-rich products properly before they are launched is critical to ensure children like them the first time, because you won’t get a second chance, he told FoodNavigator-USA.
‘If kids try a whole grain product and they don’t like it, it’s very hard to get them to come back a second time, so you need to have time to test the products to ensure you have the right flavor, color and texture.
“The biggest challenge has been having to move so quickly, and the fact that it’s effectively an unfunded mandate. We get an extra 6 cents per meal but that’s obviously not enough to offset the extra costs.
“I’ve got no doubt that as these products become much more widely available, costs will come down, but in the short-term, it’s really tough. It feels like we jumped off a cliff.”
Selling whole grains to kids
Colleen Donnelly, corporate chef at grains and grain blends supplier Indian Harvest, said the key to making whole grains a success with school children is introducing them in a familiar setting.
She said: “You can’t hit a kid over the head with a whole grain. Don’t ask them, would you like to try black barley? Because the answer is probably No!. But if you put it in a familiar setting such as a chili with brown rice, it’s normal.”
If you are trying to introduce whole grains as the centerpiece of a new menu item, however, generating some excitement to encourage trial might be the right approach she said, explaining how she had worked with a school to enthuse children about wheat berries before serving up a wheat berry salad in the cafeteria for lunch in a chef’s outfit.
The children loved it, she observed. “But what would have happened if that salad had just appeared on their tray one day? Would they have eaten it? I’m not so sure.”
Click here to read more on the new school foods standards.