BLUE EARTH - When students return to area schools in coming days, they'll find lunch has changed.
"It's not just about portions, it's what we can and can't feed them," said Christine Purvis, head cook at Blue Earth Area Schools.
President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act into law in 2010, prompting the government to make changes intended to lower childhood obesity. Those changes will mean kids eating differently at school.
One change means there is a maximum of 12 bread grains to be served to students in a week. Each slice of bread counts as one serving, so a two-slice sandwich would count as two bread grain servings.
"No more unlimited bread," Purvis warned.
Kids previously were offered bread-and-butter or peanut butter every day, and could have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once per week, but none will be available anymore.
"The kids are going to miss that," Purvis said.
And it's not just actual bread: cookies and pasta salad count toward bread grains. That means no more pasta salad offered in the salad bar.
"The salad bars are to be called fruit and veggie bars," Purvis said.
The big emphasis will be on offering more fruits and vegetables, with kids expected to put more of them on their plates, Purvis said.
"They're really pushing more vegetables," she said.
Fruits and vegetables used to be in one food category, but are now separated into two, Purvis said. Vegetables have been divided into five subgroups and the government has mandated schools must offer a certain amount of each subgroup every week.
"It's divided up between what nutrients that item provides," Purvis explained.
It makes meal-planning a bit tricky, she acknowledged.
"You have to make sure that all of these vegetable subgroups are offered every week," she said.
For instance, the legumes (beans/peas) category includes black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, pinto beans, soy beans, split peas and white beans.
"We usually do baked beans and have chickpeas in the salad cart," Purvis said, because those are most likely to be eaten by the kids.
Raw vegetables will always be offered because "kids would rather take a raw carrot than a cooked carrot," she said.
The students also have to have a balanced plate of food.
"One change to get them through the line, they have to have a minimum of a half- cup of fruit or vegetable," Purvis said. "If they don't have that on their tray, we have to legally send them back to get it."
Small boxes of raisins will be available at the computer as an option for those who don't take enough fruit.
"A fourth [of a] cup of dried fruit counts as a half-cup portion of fruit," Purvis explained.
You can make a kid take a box of raisins, but what keeps the kid from just throwing the raisins in the trash?
"We see that," Purvis admitted. "It's hard for all of us. There's nothing we can do about it.
"That's why we're trying to offer multiple choices, hoping the students will find something they like, eat it and not throw it away," she said.
The changes are required for every school that takes part in the free and reduced lunch program offered by the government -?public or private.
o Condiments will be fat-free or light dressing, low-sodium ketchups or low-sodium mustard, "when manufacturers come up with those things," said Purvis, adding that the manufacturers are trying hard to meet the guidelines too.
St. John Vianney School in Fairmont contracts its food service with Fairmont Area Schools, but will not be allowed to add anything from its own kitchen for its students.
Calories must be considered for each menu item, even the ketchup.
Deb Baldus, at SJV, said if a menu item is listed as being served with barbeque sauce, they are not allowed to let the students use ketchup because the nutritional information was calculated with the other condiment.
o Flavored milk will be offered only at lunchtimes, not for breakfast or snacks, and will only be skim milk.
"We can't offer anything over 1 percent," Purvis said.
o Sodium will be decreased by half over a 10-year period.
"We can't use salt at all," Purvis said. "We don't season with anything except Mrs. Dash, onion powder or garlic powder, any sodium-free seasoning."
o "No trans fat in anything we serve," she said.
Purvis doesn't like that the nutritional guidelines have been broken down by age groups and do not take the students' activity level into consideration, so an athlete is expected to eat the same number of calories as a child who spends time reading or in a science lab.
"A huge concern of mine is high school athletes," Purvis said. Some of them don't get to eat supper until 7:30 p.m., meaning they've gone seven or eight hours since lunch. Snack breaks before practice are a good idea, if the kids eat healthy food, like a banana and milk.
"Protein shakes are fine," she said, "but they shouldn't have anything to do with energy drinks. They cause the heart to race; so dangerous to the heart and no nutritional value to those at all."
Students who have allergies or require other special diets can get an exemption.
"Special diets have to be ordered by a doctor and have to go through the school nurse," Purvis said. "Food allergies have become a big issue, linked to behavior issues.
"If it's prescribed by a doctor and considered a disability, we're legally required to accommodate that," Purvis said.
All of these changes come at a cost - literally.
"The other thing the government is forcing us to do is raise our prices; we're required to increase lunch prices to a certain amount," she said.
"With all these changes comes increased food prices," said Purvis, adding that whole grain items cost more than processed ones. "We need to try to break even. We're proud of operating in the black, but we're not in this to make money."
She knows the school can only do so much.
"I only have the kids for one or two meals a day," Purvis noted. "It's important for families to look at these changes."
Time will tell if the changes contribute to healthier kids.
"I have worked hard to create menus that fall within USDA guidelines, yet hopefully are still attractive to the students," Purvis said. "Change is always difficult for all of us, so we need to work through these changes together. I am looking forward to another busy but good year at BEA. If there are questions or concerns regarding the lunch or breakfast programs, please fell free to contact me."
Her address is email@example.com or call the school at (507) 526-3201.