Students have mixed feelings about more veggies and fruit and less sodium, fat and calories

The lunch menu at Sleepy Eye Public School has changed this year and students are giving it mixed reviews.

First Lady Michelle Obama and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) set new standards and guidelines for school meals in January that will result in healthier meals for kids across the nation.

The new meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs every school day.

These healthier requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which was championed by the First Lady as part of her Let's Move! campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

Those standards include ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week, offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties, limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size and increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

The new standards are just one of five major components that will work together to reform school nutrition.

Next year school breakfasts will be on the list of reform.

"It really is the right thing to do," said Superintendent John Cselovski, adding that the students are finding it hard to adjust because the standards were not phased in.

Now students see three fresh vegetable servings and two fresh fruit servings each day in the lunch line as one of their first options.

Mary Sandgren, a food service specialist with Taher Food Service, Inc., said new dietary specifications set specific calorie limits to ensure age-appropriate meals for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12.

According to USDA requirements, students in Grades K-8 are required to have at least a half cup of fruit and three-fourths cup of vegetables per day, while students in grades 9-12 are required to have at least one cup of fruit and one cup of vegetables each day.

The new regulations require food service programs to include a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables each week. To help meet this requirement, Sandgren said Taher works with the Farm-to-School initiative with a produce farm out of Lake Crystal.

In addition, Sandgren said she is working on implementing a local Farm-to-School program within the surrounding

Sleepy Eye area that will continue to provide fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables to the school district in a cost effective way.

While school lunches must meet federal meal requirements to continue to receive subsidies, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.

When a chef icon is indicated on the menu, Sandgren said that indicates the meal is homemade or made from scratch.

"The push is that we are moving towards the healthier option of homemade or made-from- scratch items," Sandgren said, saying this option allows the kitchen staff to control the calories and fat and amount of sodium that goes into each meal.

Taher is a chef based company that focuses on chef basics of offering home-made or made-from-scratch meals that include healthy ingredients in a 'grab-and-go' environment. Taher has been a zero transfat company for the past seven years.

Cselovski reiterated that the switch was made to Taher Food Service this past year because they offered made-from-scratch items that reduce calories, fat and sodium intake.

"That's one of the main reasons we went with Taher and we feel it was the right choice," he added.

On Thursday pizza was offered as an entree along with fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumbers and pears. Sandberg explained the the entree started as dough and a made-from-scratch marinara sauce was added along with mozzarella cheese and pepperoni.

Sandgren explained that in years previous, heat-and-serve items were the mainstay, but in trying to reduce calorie, sodium and fat intake, homemade or made-from-scratch items help do that in a healthier, cost effective way.

Students don't see it the same way.

After speaking to several students, the main complaint is that the portion sizes are small and they are left feeling hungry at the end of the day.

Sandgren said while the entree portions have decreased slightly in size to meet the guidelines within the requirements, more fresh vegetables and fruits are offered.

She pointed out that while students are offered fresh vegetables and fruits each day, they don't always necessarily take what is offered.

Sandgren also said another reason students may feel hungry by the end of the day is that the standards are not set for student athletes.

"It's an average meal and the standards are set for students across the country for this region," Sandgren said. "I understand and hear what the students are saying. With these new regulations it's not just Sleepy Eye kids being affected. It is a requirement for schools in the national food service program across the country."

To combat hunger, Sandgren and Cselovski said students have the option to purchase a second entree, and only be charged for the entree, if they are still hungry after going through the line.

In addition to these new requirements, Sandgren has talked to the student council in setting up a food committee. Within this committee students are given a voice to share issues with the new requirements and taste test new foods being considered before they make it to the lunch line.

Sandgren said these new requirements are the future.

"The sooner we can get kids to eat healthy, the better the chance will be that they will embrace this lifestyle."