USDA Proposes Healthy Mandate For School Menus

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This week, the USDA proposed new standards for the nation's school menus. The changes would add more whole grains and more fresh fruit while limiting starchy vegetables and eliminating flavored milk. It's the first time school meal standards have been raised in 15 years. But the changes would pose challenges to many school districts. NPR's Michele Norris talks with Sandy Huisman, director of nutrition services with the Des Moines Public Schools.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Goodbye, French fries and pizza every day. Hello, whole grains and dark green vegetables. School menus could change dramatically under new standards proposed yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rules would go into effect in 2012. Among other things, children would have more fresh fruit and vegetables on their trays and only one cup a week of starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn. And yes, that does include French fries.

Whole milk, out. Chocolate milk, out. One percent or fat-free milk, in.

The changes are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and they represent the first time school meals standards have been raised in 15 years.

For some school districts, implementing these changes poses challenges. And for more, I'm joined by Sandy Huisman. She's the director of food nutrition for the Des Moines Public Schools.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. SANDY HUISMAN (Director, Nutrition Services, Des Moines Public Schools): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: What will these changes mean for you?

Ms. HUISMAN: Well, we've been implementing healthy changes for several years now, so it's not as drastic as it might sound. Probably, the biggest changes for us are the requirements to offer additional servings of fruits and vegetables. And then, as you mentioned, the change to restrict the offering of starchy vegetables and focusing more on the dark green, orange vegetables.

NORRIS: You know, I can hear the cries from the backseat from kids listening to this. No more French fries, what is that going to mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUISMAN: We will still be able to offer sweet potato fries, but mashed potatoes, corn are some of our more popular vegetables, and we will need to limit those.

NORRIS: Since you're going to be serving more fruit and more leafy green vegetables, also more orange vegetables...

Ms. HUISMAN: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: ...as you mentioned, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash and things like that, does that mean that there will be more fresh fruit and veggies on the menu?

Ms. HUISMAN: We're certainly working towards that, and they present some production and procurement challenges. Iowa, this time of year, there aren't a lot of fresh fruits or vegetables grown locally, and it's working with our vendors to make sure they're available at a reasonable cost.

We will certainly be offering the canned and frozen options. From a cost standpoint as well as a storage standpoint, we will need to rely on those.

NORRIS: Ms. Huisman, it seems like one of the truly big challenges for the school systems is this new sodium requirement. The average school lunch right now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Under these new guidelines, that has to be reduced to 740 milligrams or less for grades nine through 12, 710 for grades six to eight, and 640 milligrams for K through fifth grade.

That's a big change. How do you meet that new standard?

Ms. HUISMAN: It is a very big change. And one of the good things about the legislation is that they're requesting that that happens over 10 years from the point of implementation, which allows several things to happen. Hopefully, manufacturers will get on the bandwagon and start changing the way they're producing items. And hopefully, that will happen not only for items that are produced for school lunch programs, but manufacturers will see the benefit of doing that for all foods that they're offering.

NORRIS: How do you suspect kids will respond? What do you think will be the biggest jolt to their systems less pizza, whole wheat pizza, no more chocolate milk?

Ms. HUISMAN: We've been able to introduce things gradually. For instance, in the last two or three years, we have gone to a whole grain bread, and we find that the elementary students have adapted to that change a little bit better than our secondary students. And that's probably because secondary students were exposed to how it was before, and the elementary students don't know any better.

So it's adjusting to - adjusting their taste buds to the healthier offerings.

NORRIS: Any surprises things that the kids took to immediately that you thought might not go over so well?

Ms. HUISMAN: The chicken nuggets with the reduced fat and the whole grain. And I still go into school buildings and what the kids tell me: Oh, your chicken nuggets are just so good. I love your chicken nuggets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUISMAN: So they really did not complain about that change.

NORRIS: Sandy Huisman, thanks so much for talking to us.

Ms. HUISMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Sandy Huisman is director of food nutrition for the Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa. She was talking about the USDA's proposals for healthier menus at schools.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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