Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Carol Jones, head cook, dishes out taco meat for UTC Children's Center pre-k student Rohan Woodruff's lunch while at Battle Academy in downtown Chattanooga late Monday morning.
Now that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has revealed specifics about its proposed changes to school lunches, officials are starting to panic over how they'll afford the hefty prices of healthy food.
"We don't have enough money now to meet the standards they want, so how are we going to do this financially?" asked Carolyn Childs, director of Hamilton County Schools' school nutrition department. "They say they're going to increase [our subsidy] 6 cents ... 6 cents is nothing."
The USDA is asking the public to submit comments on the proposed new requirements until April 13.
One of the biggest changes would increase significantly the amount of fruits and vegetables schools must serve. Now they must give between 1/2 cup and 1 cup of fruits and vegetables every day. The new rules would require 3/4 cup to 1 cup of vegetables plus 1/2 cup to 1 cup of fruit per day.
The rules limit which vegetables are served. There are weekly requirements for dark green and orange vegetables, while starchy vegetables such as potatoes, lima beans, corn and green peas are restricted to 1 cup each week.
"Kids love corn and potatoes," Childs said. "They'll do without before they eat something they don't like."
Battle Academy fourth-grader Jalen Womble, 9, thinks most of his classmates only pretend to not like fruits and vegetables because they think it's the cool thing to do.
"I love strawberries. I think they should be added," he said.
Classmate Sheldon Binford, 10, said she would like to see more vegetables anyway, so the changes don't sound too bad.
"I'm not much of a wheat eater, but they could add a little," she said.
Battle's physical education teacher, Chris Darras, said students' acceptance of the new menu will depend largely on what they're used to seeing at home.
"If they see something and they don't recognize it, they don't want to grab something that they might not like," he said.
Sara White, director of the state's school nutrition department, said she's assuring her local directors that it's likely the proposed changes will be amended.
"I think every single person needs to make a comment if they think a comment is necessary," White said.
"Tell me what fruit or vegetable you can buy for 6 cents; I just don't think it's possible," she said. "I think it may be fairly extreme, but I guess we'll see. I'm hoping they'll listen to us."
According to the USDA, nearly 32 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight or obese, a figure that has tripled in the last few decades. Updating school menus is just one way to help fight childhood obesity, the USDA says.
"With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration's effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and well-being of all our kids," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in
To comment on the USDA's proposed new rules for school lunches, visit www.regulations.gov by April 13.
Grades K-5: 350-500
Grades 6-8: 400-550
Grades 9-12: 450-600
Grades K-5: 550-650
Grades 6-8: 600-700
Grades 9-12: 750-850
a prepared statement.
Local nutritionist Dee Harwell said the changes are a step in the right direction, but that true change in kids' palates will require the firm support of parents and teachers, as well.
"If they say, 'Well, I don't like green beans,' well, they don't like to do their math, either, but we don't tell them they don't have to do that," she said.
In addition to the extra fruits and veggies, the new regulations would require half the daily serving of 1.8 to 2.6 ounces of grains to be whole grain.
"A whole-grain bun is 22 cents per serving; a plain biscuit is 12 cents. You're talking double," Childs said.
All milk products must be 1 percent milkfat, a change Hamilton County began phasing in this school year. Over the next 10 years, sodium levels must be reduced between 25 and 53 percent, depending on grade level.
Despite the extra costs, Childs said she has some ideas on ways to comply with the changes before charging students more to eat cafeteria food.
Cafeterias in Hamilton County schools serve two entrees, chef salads, processed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and yogurt. If the new changes are passed, Childs said the district will likely have to cut back on the variety.
She's also considering training cafeteria servers on portion control because she believes portion sizes vary widely from school to school.
"Raising prices is the last option," she said.
But all the changes in the world won't do much good if kids won't eat the healthier food, Childs said. Parents need to start offering their children healthier food, too, so their palates adjust, she said.
"School nutrition is going to have a challenge to change the taste buds of these kids if the rest of their diet doesn't change. If we're the only ones changing, yes, we'll win a few kids over, but we really need the support of parents."
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Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...