More brown, less white. More fresh and frozen, less canned. More fruits and veggies, fewer sweets.
That’s what students in schools across South Carolina have to look forward to when they head back to class in a few weeks.
School nutrition programs are preparing for these changes, the latest in a phasing-in of healthier food standards in public schools.
The latest round of changes went into effect July 1 and is part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, legislation that dictates the funding and policy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition programs.
“It’s just about getting the kids used to these healthier options,” said April Gibbons, the wellness manager for the Rock Hill school district.
Changes to school meals include a shift to whole-grain foods, a reduction of sodium and a requirement of a fruit or vegetable.
While the lunch line won’t look any different, students used to be able to skip the apple or carrots if they didn’t want them. Now, want them or not, they have to take them.
The stricter sodium requirements mean school cafeterias will be shifting from canned goods to fresh or fresh-frozen products, Gibbons said. Too much sodium in a person’s diet can lead to high blood pressure and other medical conditions, according to the USDA.
Students will notice the shift to whole-grain or whole-wheat bread products, Gibbons said.
“Last year, we were doing a 53/47 blend and you couldn’t tell the difference,” she said. “They’re definitely going to be able to taste the difference with pasta and bread.”
But whole grain is a healthier option than white flour products, Gibbons said, because it takes longer to metabolize, so students will feel full longer.
Many students don’t eat whole-grain products at home, so they don’t realize they might actually like them, she said.
Gibbons said the district is aware of reports from across the country that indicate children won’t eat healthier food at lunch or breakfast, opting instead to not eat at all. But until the school year starts, there’s no way to gauge their reactions, she said.
“There’s still going to be chicken nuggets and pizza and all the other things that they’re used to,” Gibbons said, but the pizza will have whole wheat crust with low-fat cheese and the chicken nuggets will be baked with whole-wheat bread crumbs instead of white flour.
New snack requirements might take some students by surprise this year.
“We won’t be seeing ice cream or Chik-fil-A or Pizza Hut, unless they come out with a product that meets the guidelines,” Gibbons said.
Those guidelines include strict calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits and requirements for whole grains, fruits and vegetables and important nutrients such as calcium and fiber. That means no more Chik-fil-A fundraisers during lunch hours, an activity that’s particularly popular at local high schools.
If a company can provide a product that meets those guidelines, the schools can sell it, but if not, it’s not allowed.
The nutritional changes mean suppliers are scrambling to get products in compliance in time for the 2014-2015 school year, Gibbons said. Companies such as General Mills and Pillsbury will have to reformulate their offerings to meet the new guidelines.
“Everything’s having to change,” Gibbons said.
But making things healthier will be worth it, she said. The South Carolina Institute for Childhood Obesity and Related Disorders reports that one in four children in South Carolina is obese.
“With the hustle and bustle of every day, it’s going to open their eyes up to some of the healthier options they may not have access to at home.”