With concerns surfacing across the state about how much food is offered in the newly changed school lunches, it appears that the most important aspect of the change is to ensure that students are eating more fruits and vegetables.
Board of education member Lynne Hurley said Tuesday that, at a recent finance committee meeting, staff members from Maschio’s Food Services—which is contracted by the district to provide lunches—said the state requirements include increased portions of fruits and vegetables at each lunch.
And in past years, Hurley said, students would take five different types of food for one lunch—now, they only take three items for the meal to qualify as lunch, according to state standards.
“They still can take five, but in the past they always did,” she said.
In addition, Hurley said, as per state requirements, Maschio’s has reduced the portion sizes for proteins. The minimum in previous years, she said, was about 3- to 4-ounces of protein in a meal, and now it’s a maximum of about 2.4 ounces.
“We are looking at ways to offer additional meats at the lowest costs,” she said.
There is also a requirement for a decreased amount of grains, and 50 percent of the bread eaten must be rich in whole grains.
“Before they could have a bread basket out, and now it is not allowed,” Hurley said.
As for milk, Hurley said, if it is flavored, only fat free is allowed, but if it is not flavored, 1 percent is allowed.
“Those were the key changes to the lunch program,” she said.
Hurley said these regulations were provided recently for food service providers in general, and Maschio’s is working to adjust its portions.
“They are now looking for ways to change, and maybe the meals at a regular weight will be more satisfying,” she said.
In terms of other items like cookies and other desserts, Hurley said, they are still offered, but are not part of what is included as a qualifying meal.
“And kids can buy more food if they want,” she said.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder said students can buy extra food anytime, but for those who can’t afford it, that could be an issue if they are still hungry.
“They’re fairly generous with things that are not limited, so if someone wants more vegetables or other items in a standard lunch, [that’s OK],” said board of education president Evan Lerner. “I’m hearing the bread and meat portions are too small, but there are extra items.”
Board members said they are hearing from parents that they are concerned about having to pay more to get less food.
“Prices went up, and portion sizes went down,” said board member Jill Gladstone. “That’s what I’m hearing, they’re getting less and paying more.”
Still, the increase in prices, and decrease in portions, is part of the mandated Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was put in place to combat obesity, and officially took affect for 2012. School districts that do not comply are levied hefty fines.
“And we receive $450,000 a year by being part of this program, it would be a huge increase in the lunch prices if we didn’t get that,” Hurley said.
Survin Song, a student at Bridgewater-Raritan High School and one of the student representatives to the board of education, said the fruits and vegetables offered are often not good.
“They give packages of baby carrots, and they are usually dried up or moldy,” she said. “No one wants to eat that, but the lunch ladies force you to take them.”
“If we had better variety, we would want to eat healthier,” she added.
Bridgewater parent Laura Scolarice said she supports the fact that the students are being forced to eat more fruits and vegetables, but it might be more effective if the portion sizes were changed. At the elementary schools, she said, the portions are actually too large, and students end up throwing food away.
“Instead of making the high school students buy extra because it will cost more, maybe we could leave certain things out for them to eat free, like extra salad or extra fruit,” she said. “They may not want to buy it again, but if you offer it for free, they might.”
“And I see so much food wasted at elementary schools,” she added. “Salads are great, but for the elementary level, they’re too big. If you downsize them a little, you will waste less food.”