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Flexibility at lunch: Sens. Hoeven, Heitkamp integral to enforcing changes to school lunch program

Reuters Photo Students eat a healthy lunch at a California middle school in this file photo. North Dakota’s senators played a key role in helping change the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for school lunches.

School lunch officials now have a little more wiggle room with calories, protein and grain services after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that temporary changes lobbied for by a group of bipartisan U.S. senators, including sponsor John Hoeven, R-N.D., and co-sponsor Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are now permanent.

When the changes to the school lunch program first took effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, students across the nation were complaining that they were still hungry after eating lunch. Schools believed many of the required extra fruits and vegetables were ending up in the garbage.

“It was one of those Washington, D.C., one-size-fits-all situations,” said Heitkamp, whose mother worked as a school cook. “An eighth-grader who maybe hadn’t fully matured was entitled to the same amount of protein as a 230-pound senior who plays football. It just didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Hoeven, along with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., petitioned the USDA to loosen the restrictions on the number of calories, as well as grain and protein portions — from meat and non-meat sources, like beans — shortly after the complaints started coming in. The USDA made the temporary changes in March 2012 to begin in the 2013-14 school year. The permanent change was announced Thursday afternoon.

“The new regulations are to take a look at how we can better address the issues of nutrition and provide the schools with some stability,” Heitkamp said. “They were pretty rigid rules before in terms of how much protein and how much grain, and those rules really did not reflect the situation.”

Rural school districts in North Dakota catering to students in kindergarten to their senior year had the biggest challenge with calorie limits, which were set for elementary, middle school and high school students, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baelser said.

“You would have your five or six lunch personnel serving different groups of students and they would have to be very alert to which class they were serving,” Baesler said. “They may have a group of second-graders come in, and then they would have a group of seventh-graders come in, and then 11th-graders and then back to fourth-graders.”

Another concern were student-athletes, who would have to go six or seven hours between meals with a vigorous practice at the end of the day.

“As we’ve known about protein for a long time is that it is a slow release and it really does sustain and suppress that hunger for a long period of time,” Baesler said. “That was the major flaw, from my point of view, about that one-size-fits-all approach. There were a lot of assumptions being made that students should have ‘X’ number of calories for an entire day and that it should be spread out evenly between breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner.”

Right after the changes from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 came into effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, students across the state spoke up, Baesler said.

“I’m very proud of students advocating for themselves, it was very impressive,” Baesler said. “They communicated and articulated their needs in a very thoughtful and structured way.”

Another big concern are students from families that don’t have enough to eat, Heitkamp said.

“Very many of the children who use the hot lunch program, a lot of those kids, maybe that’s the only hot meal they’ll have,” Heitkamp said. “They come to school on Monday hungry, and if you restrict the intake irrationally, it just seemed to not make a lot of sense.”

The added flexibility will make it easier for school lunch planners to create meals that please students’ pallette and meet health requirements, said Karen Ehrens, a Bismarck-based health and nutrition consultant who is a past chairwoman of Legislative and Public Policy Committee for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has worked for the Department of Public Instruction.

Loosening the restrictions on grains and proteins makes it easier to serve sandwiches.

“Sandwiches are always really popular option at lunch and so to make sandwich options available more often during the week will be something that’s easier for schools to do for kids,” Ehrens said.

While the added fruits and vegetables were a bit of contention point at first, students have started to enjoy trying new things, Baesler said.

“The positive that came out of these nutrition guidelines is that our students were being introduced to a larger variety of fruits and vegetables and more frequent exposure to fruits and vegetables,” Baesler said. “I am not a fan of the calorie limits. I don’t think we should be so focused on a number as the maximum calorie a person should intake during. I am a fan and an advocate for education about nutrition and better, healthier choices. I believe that the exposure to a larger variety of fruits and vegetables is a positive thing.”

For others, it might take some time for something new to catch on, Ehrens said.

“In some cases, it takes up to 20 times — between 10 and 20 times for a person, a child or even an adult — to get used to a new food,” Ehrens said. “Whenever change comes, some people are resistant and they are kind of scared of it. But I think now as the kids at school are getting used to what’s on their menus and the cooks are getting more comfortable with the new meal patterns, I think it’s all starting to go more smoothly now.”

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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