Richmond-area schools aim to make meals healthier despite relaxed nutrition requirements

By Justin Mattingly, Richmond Times Dispatch 

Richmond-area school divisions continue to serve healthy food options despite federal changes to nutrition requirements in school meals.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in May that the federal Department of Agriculture would be giving school divisions more flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meals starting this year. The flexibility specifically targets the sodium levels in foods, whole grains and flavored milk.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a May news release touting the move with a headline using the administration’s coined phrase. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program.”

“We are just continuing as we are, understanding that there are a lot of good things to this program,” said Peggy Gordon, the nutrition services director for Henrico County Public Schools.

“Everything is still the same,” said Susan Roberson, the director of school nutrition services for Richmond Public Schools.

“We’re staying the course,” said Dana Whitney, the food services director for Hanover County Public Schools.

Not much has changed, said Warren Grigg, the director of food and nutrition services for Chesterfield County Public Schools.

The new guidance put out by the USDA — sent to regional and state directors of child nutrition programs at the end of May — is not a repeal of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, an Obama-era law that set new nutrition standards for schools across the U.S., especially tightening restrictions on sugar, fat and sodium. Schools were required to meet certain levels of nutrition, while the new guidance gives schools the choice. It’s meant to give schools more freedom in their food nutrition.

“And here’s the thing about local control: it means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today,” Perdue said. “These are not mandates on schools.”

In the Richmond area, divisions are choosing to keep the healthier meals. A USDA spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on if the rollout of the new guidelines had gone as planned.

That doesn’t mean divisions aren’t facing challenges when it comes to student meals. Getting an elementary student to eat their vegetables still takes added effort. Richmond Public Schools use the popular Mrs. Dash seasoning to add flavor to vegetables and Hanover has a build your own burrito bowl option that you’d normally find in a Moe’s Southwest Grill or Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Students, of course, aren’t forced to eat the fruits and vegetables they’re required to take for lunch. Lunches must have a meat or meat alternate, a vegetable, a fruit, a grain and milk.

A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study showed that more students were eating fruits and vegetables, but about 60 to 75 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruit in students’ meals were being thrown away.

A Chesterfield middle school is working to combat the alarming amount of waste through a schoolwide compost program that has already stopped about 750 pounds of fruits and vegetables from finding their way to a landfill, instead finding second life in soil planned for a school garden.

There’s also the increased cost of healthy foods. Nutrition requirements cost school divisions and states an extra $1.2 billion in 2015, according to the USDA.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are always a pricey item, but it’s the job of school and nutrition professionals to create a well-rounded menu that includes all those items,” said Whitney, the Hanover food services director.

Meals at school can serve as the majority of a student’s nutrition, said Sonya Islam, a dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University. This increases the importance, Islam said, of schools paying attention to what their students are eating.

“Kids need good quality food in order to learn effectively,” she said.

The standards in place under the Obama-era regulations give students the nutrients they need, she added. All four school nutrition directors interviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch echoed the need for healthy meals in the cafeteria.

“Schools aren’t just concerned anymore with slapping food on a tray and checking off a box,” Islam said.

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