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Ohio schools ready to pivot with pending lunch changes

Posted at 6:03 PM, Jan 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-21 20:01:23-05

AKRON, Ohio — Proposed changes to school lunches already have area schools thinking about what comes next, even before anything is final.

Late last week, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it was responding to an outcry from schools across the country. The agency released a 167-page proposal that would change regulations for school districts.

Several changes would roll back regulations championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The measures passed under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

“Well, currently, we are meeting all the requirements,” said Laura Kepler, the coordinator for child nutrition for the Akron Public Schools. “It hasn’t been easy but it does take a lot of energy and resources and trying to figure out and putting together the right meal plans so our average food costs do stay down.”

Standing in front a pile of bananas, apples, and oranges at Ellet Community Learning Center, she said feeding students a nutritious meal is always the priority.

“The school for food regulations are very complicated. It seems simple, you should just be able to serve a nutritious lunch. But they are highly regulated, and it is a federally operated program and so there’s some misconception I think,” Kepler said about what it’s like to plan a menu that students will eat while meeting the requirements.

And the announcement by the USDA would revise those regulations.

Currently, the government requires schools to focus on whole grains and low-fat milk while giving students choices for lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some of the changes announced under the USDA run by Secretary Sonny Perdue would increase the number of a la carte options for students. Schools could also see more vegetable subgroups and small portions of fruit required for in-school breakfasts.

“These specific changes I don’t see necessarily affecting us here in Akron,” Kepler said. “I’m one of school districts in Summit County, one of hundreds in the state, one of thousands across the country and all school nutrition professionals will be looking at this in detail and trying to apply and make comments on those changes that will benefit us and maybe some of it will not.”

According to the USDA, the impetus for the changes come as a reaction to schools across the country and the need to reduce food waste.

Staff at the school tells News 5 that 10 to 12 bags of trash go out every day for each lunch. The school has three lunch periods.

But striking the balance between healthy food and food students will eat is never easy.

The menu on Tuesday was wide reaching. Going through the lunch line, students at Ellet had choices from buffalo chicken pizza on a whole grain crust to salad or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Still, students weren’t pleased.

Jasmine Smith gave a simple answer for her reason in wanting more options in the lunch line.

“It’s gross,” she said even though she got a lunch.

And Smith isn’t alone.

“The school lunch is so nasty,” said Mekiya Dipson. “Like, back in middle school we used to be able to have flavor. We used to be able to have flavor in our potatoes; in our different vegetables and stuff.”

Dipson said she would trade nutritional value for taste.

“Kids don’t want to eat whole baked," Dipson said. "They want to eat actual stuff. I understand that we got more obesity in our country, but like, what kids are going to actually want to eat this kind of stuff?”

Not every student in the lunch room at Ellet felt the same as Dipson and Smith.

Kiyleigh Wallace said regulations need to lean toward more healthy options.

“I think it’s unhealthy and it’s really greasy and it’s not good for you,” she said. “We need healthier food… I don’t think that’s good. I think it should be more vegetables and more healthy stuff for us to eat.”

Currently, every student at the school can get lunch free of charge because 91 percent of students there qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. The school district is then reimbursed from the government, not from the district general fund.

For a meal to qualify, though, Kepler said students must take a fruit or a vegetable for the meal to qualify for money back.

Critics of the proposed regulations worry if students are given too many off-menu or a la carte options, they will stray from healthy options like the steamed broccoli offered at Ellet Tuesday.

“I will just continue to assure parents that these changes won’t affect the nutritional quality of the food that they’re getting. They'll still be getting a variety of foods. They’ll have different vegetables to offer,” Kepler said. “We won’t be back to just a very old-school thought of potatoes every day, that just won’t happen. We still have nutrition requirements for calories and sodium that need to be met and those have not been addressed to be changed at all right now, and anything that I’m reading in this proposed rule. So, to meet those were going to offer a variety of foods and fresh foods.”