GLOVERSVILLE - It's been three years since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, but many of the federal nutrition rules for school lunch and breakfast programs still are in flux. Local school districts and their students are adapting to the latest regulations - and looking ahead to next year's changes - as the nationwide battle against childhood obesity continues.
"We've been working through this the last couple of years," said Teal Carpenter, nutrition director for the Gloversville Enlarged School District and the Greater Johnstown School District. She also oversees aspects of food service for several other districts in the BOCES region. The Glove Cities districts' food-service programs are managed jointly by Carpenter under the auspices of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Carpenter said lawmakers' goal for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was to ensure meals provided to children at school provide a healthy counterbalance to the fast food and junk food so prevalent outside of school.
Sixth-grader Alexander Romano, left, and eighth-grader Sierra Hayes go through the cafeteria lunch line at Gloversville Middle School on Thursday. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
"They said, 'There's such an obesity epidemic in this country, school meals should be doing everything they can to eliminate obesity,'" Carpenter said. "I won't get on my soap box, but when the 5-year-old comes in [to kindergarten] who already knows McDonald's and Burger King, and he should weigh 45 pounds but weighs 90, school lunch didn't do that."
The federal law calls for leaner meats, more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables and reduced calorie counts, fat and sodium. The guidelines differ for three age groups: kindergarten through grade five, grades six through eight, and grades nine through 12.
Initially, the government had placed limits on the weekly number of servings of grains and meat, which caused "a little bit of an uproar," Carpenter said, but the law allows for a process of comment, review and revision for specific regulations.
School meals at a glance
In the Gloversville Enlarged School District, six out of 10 students eat the school-prepared lunch rather than bring their own lunch from home.
Here's a look at some of the provisions of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in effect this year:
- Meals include fruits and vegetables every day of the week.
- Breads, rice, pasta and tortillas are whole-grain.
- Milk is low-fat or fat-free.
- Meals contain less saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
- Calorie limits on meals are as follows: kindergarten through grade five, 650 calories; grades six through eight, 700 calories; grades nine through 12, 850 calories.
"Now there's no limit on the number of servings of meat or grains, as long as you stay within the calorie ranges and [all the foods are] lower than 10 percent saturated fat," she said.
The new regulations for the 2013-14 school apply mostly to school breakfast menus, bringing them in line with the regulations - such as calorie counts - already in effect for lunch.
This month's lunch and breakfast menus in the Gloversville schools include a few items that would have been unheard of a generation ago, such as whole-grain waffles and grilled chicken on a bed of romaine lettuce.
"But we're still giving kids the things they like - like the chicken nuggets," Carpenter said. "We're still giving them pizza, but now it's on a whole-grain crust, with reduced-fat cheese on it."
At lunchtime on Thursday at Gloversville Middle School, items on the menu included brown rice, chicken nuggets and potato puffs.
"It was not the most colorful plate today, but they love it," Carpenter said, noting the chicken nuggets are much healthier than the fast-food equivalent.
Some seventh-graders who spoke with a reporter said Thursday's lunch wasn't so bad.
"These chicken nuggets are better than McDonald's," according to Harmony Philo, who said her least favorite lunch entree is the dreaded grilled cheese sandwich: "It's burnt and disgusting."
Classmate Frank Sweet agreed the nuggets are tasty, and he recommends the "ribwiches" and tuna-fish sandwiches.
"But the cheeseburgers taste like plastic," he warned.
The school day at GMS starts around 8 a.m., so depending on which of the three lunch periods they attend, students wait up to four and a half hours for their midday meal.
"We have a really, really late lunch, so we're really hungry anyway," said Philo.
Several students wearing their maroon-and-white soccer uniforms said they wish the school lunches could be more filling.
"The tacos they gave us yesterday were good, but I think they could have given us more," said Danny Helou, also a seventh-grader.
The rules don't allow a student to take a second helping of tacos, but Carpenter said they do allow students to take an extra piece of fruit.
And students pointed out an ice-cream machine in the cafeteria offers calorie-packed treats for those with a sweet tooth and money to spend. By next September, however, the contents of that machine could change, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new "Smart Snacks in School" rules are set to take effect, limiting what can be sold in school vending machines to nutritional snacks that are low in fat, sugar, and sodium.
Going through the lunch line in the cafeteria, each student is required to take a fruit or a vegetable. On Thursday, students ate apples, oranges and bananas along with their chicken nuggets, potato puffs and low-fat milk. Many said their parents insist they eat right at home, too, so the emphasis on nutrition at school isn't a big deal.
"It keeps me healthy," said Sweet, shrugging his shoulders as he crunched into an apple.