Local high schools have already taken steps to ensure healthy portion sizes and to limit additional salt in food.
The new nutrition requirements formulated by the USDA as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, limit high school lunches to a 750-850 calorie range. A range of 450-600 is given for high school breakfast.
Before the new specifications were put in place, there were no federal calorie maximums school lunches.
The required calorie range is different for each grade. To keep lunches within the required calorie range, school lunches are served in predetermined portions, Bradley County Schools supervisor of nutrition services Emily Brown said.
Cleveland City Schools supervisor of nutrition services Susan Perrin said the majority of meals fall in the middle of the allowable range.
Throughout the first month of school, Brown visited schools and observed how students responded to the changes.
“I’m watching our serving lines, seeing what the children are focusing on and making changes from there,” Brown said.
Because of changes in calorie requirements, some high school students feel their school lunch has shrunk.
“This year there are smaller portions and the price has gone up,” Tiffany Smith, a senior at Bradley Central High School, said.
The price lunch at her school, and Walker Valley High School, increased 5 cents this school year. Bradley County school high school lunches cost $2.35. (Those in the free and reduced lunch program pay less.)
Smith said the portions were not large enough to keep a high school student from getting hungry.
The website ChooseMyplate.gov, which follows the same nutrition guidelines from which the new standards are based, recommends a calorie intake of 2,200 calories for high school male students, who moderately exercise less than 30 minutes most days. For high school females in the same category, the recommendation is 1,800 calories.
If a student eats breakfast and lunch at school, they consume 1,200 to 1,450 of their daily calories at school.
Perrin said the portions have not necessarily gotten smaller, but how the calories are broken down in the meal have changed. Fruits and vegetables are a big focus of the new standards.
At the Bradley County high schools, fruits and vegetables are served in half-cup servings, which give students more variety of choice in the fruits and vegetables they consume.
Students can choose three components to make a reimbursable meal, meaning the school system will receive money back from the state.
“It’s up to the child. Offer versus serve really gives them a lot of options. In the high school level, we have worked with them from kindergarten all the way up to now on making healthy choices, not just why you should pick it for your health, but we want healthy lifestyle choices for the rest of your life,” Brown said.
Sodium is also a health concern under the new requirements. The first target for sodium limits is 1,420 grams of sodium or less for high school lunches by the year 2014 to 2015.
Salt shakers have also been removed at Cleveland High School and Bradley Central High School. Walker Valley is in the process of doing the same.
“As I watch the line (at Walker Valley), very few people actually use the salt shakers,” Brown said.
A way both public school systems have started working toward lowering sodium choices is using low sodium seasonings.
Perrin said the school system has also started using low sodium vegetables.
“So many of the foods we eat everyday, we don’t realize they already have sodium in them,” Perrin said.
Because of this taste buds have come to expect these higher levels, she said.
At Bradley Central High School, other steps have already been taken to transition students to lower salt meals.
Smith said she can taste a difference, and is not enjoying the lower salt content. Some of her classmates have brought salt from home to use on cafeteria food. Others have stopped buying school lunch all together, and have starting bringing their food to school.
Since the changes to the school lunch, Smith, who leaves school during fourth period for work, often grabs something at the nearest fast-food restaurant on her way. Other days she fills up on the a la carte snack options, which do not have as many limits on them.
She said she has not discussed her concerns with the school, but has talked to her parents a little bit about it.
Bradley County parents can often see what choices their student had available for lunch by visiting the Bradley County Schools Child Nutrition Facebook page.
While some students may find the transition to the new standards a difficult one, most students are embracing the healthy options.
“What I’m seeing is they’re choosing the fruit or vegetable and that is automatically lowering the sodium content,” Brown said.
“I’ve just been amazed how they are really drawn to the fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s going very well.”
Brown said the suppliers of food to the school system would be supplying foods with lower sodium as the new requirements take effect.
“Fryless Fridays” have also been introduced in the Bradley County high schools.
At Walker Valley, the fries have been replaced with apple slices served in fry containers with caramel sauce available for dipping.
While not directly regulated by the USDA standards for school lunches, specific requirements for snacks offered during lunch (a la carte options) have not changed.
Brown said the new standards have eliminated some snack options from the cafeteria, because all cafeteria options must have 0 grams trans fat.
Vending machines cannot be available during lunchtime per state law. Snacks are also available to Bradley Central students through the school store.
Although not regulated by school nutrition standards, those running the store are working on plans to have healthier options available.
Perrin said snacks have not changed at Cleveland High School, but she thinks regulation may be placed on the snacks offered in the cafeteria in the future.
Condiments are another element of school lunches that are being effected.
“We are held accountable for every calorie that goes on that tray, and condiments do add a lot of calories,” Perrin said. “They are having to be very careful.”
In the Bradley County high schools, students are given a limited amount of sauces.
Brown said students are given two packs of ketchup. Students can purchase more at an additional price.