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Published August 07 2012

New school nutrition rules may be tough to swallow

FARGO – Bread bonanzas are out, salad bars are in, and fruit and veggies are no longer negotiable as local schools tinker with their lunch menus to conform to new federal nutrition rules.

For the first time, students will have to have at least a half-cup or fruit or vegetables on their trays for the lunch to count as a federally reimbursable meal – the meal most students who eat school lunch get.

Half of all grain servings must be whole-grain; next year, it’s all grain servings. Milk must be either low-fat or fat-free. Meat and bread servings now have caps.

And calorie counts, which previously only included a minimum, now have maximums depending on the age group, ranging from 650 calories for the youngest students to 850 for high schoolers.

“The menu’s going to be healthier,” said Deb Laber, director of nutrition services for Fargo Public Schools.

The changes reflect new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that took effect this summer, aimed at promoting healthy eating. School food officials in Moorhead, Fargo and West Fargo are all taking steps to fall in line.

In Moorhead, that means dropping sub sandwiches – which made it difficult for the district to meet the grain standards – in favor of a salad bar.

It’s a positive change, said Donna Tvedt, the district’s food services director, but not necessarily an easy one for students to swallow.

“It’s hard on our part, and it’s going to be hard for the students to make the changes,” she said.

Fargo also is cutting back on breads and bolstering the salad bar. Laber said the idea is to offer enough variety that students find something healthy to fit their tastes.

“Our salad bar’s going to be big and overflowing, so hopefully the students can find something on there that they want to eat,” she said.

Pizza crust has gone whole grain, and cheese and toppings all have reduced fat.

To meet some of the requirements, “we have to get creative,” Laber said.

For instance, the bread limits for the youngest students mean schools can’t serve them sandwiches every day for lunch.

That doesn’t mean cafeteria servers are counting breadsticks at the end of the line. Instead, each day’s menu offerings are tailored to the serving limits.

Students can still exceed the limit if they purchase food a la carte. The new rules apply to lunch, though there are other standards for breakfast.

In West Fargo, Food Service Director Jan Sliper has been aggressive about swapping in whole grains in advance of next year’s rules.

She said the food service industry has made big strides in creating new products to meet the requirements, though she’s still trying to find tasty alternatives for some menu mainstays, like pancakes.

Before she puts food in front of students, “I want to make sure that it’s somewhat acceptable first,” she said.

There are other new rules reshaping the menu. A requirement that schools offer legumes at least once a week, for instance, has the district tinkering with new bean dishes.

For now, that means baked beans – in the past, students haven’t taken well to offerings like black beans in salsa, Sliper said. But that will have to change too when new sodium rules, which take hold next year, make it harder to serve baked and refried beans.

“I’ll worry about that next year,” Sliper said.

She said the district has always offered a good number of fruits and vegetables. The trick, she said, is getting students to eat them.

To that end, she’s hoping parents and teachers will help out in educating children and encouraging them to try new things. It’s also incumbent upon the district to put out fresh, attractive offerings, she said.

“We’ll have to pay attention to what the kids like,” she said.

Fruits like mandarin oranges, bananas, and strawberries are usually safe bets.

“Everything else,” she said – including most green vegetables – “is kind of a tough sell.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502