This year marks the “target year” for the beginning of a series of reductions in the amount of sodium school breakfasts and lunches can contain.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program of which Tennessee schools are a part, has designated the 2014-2015 school year as the “target year” for a range of sodium reductions for school meals.
According to USDA guidelines, school lunches must meet the following requirements:
- Kindergarten through fifth grade: less than or equal to 1,230 milligrams of sodium,
- Sixth through eighth grade: less than or equal to 1,360 mg and
- Ninth through 12th grade: less than or equal to 1,420 mg.
School breakfasts have even stricter requirements:
- Kindergarten through fifth grade: less than or equal to 540 mg,
- Sixth through eighth grade: less than or equal to 600 mg and
- Ninth through 12th grade: less than or equal to 640 mg.
Further reductions are also scheduled to take place in 2017 and 2022.
School nutrition supervisors from the Bradley County and Cleveland City school systems have been working together to figure out how to best reduce the amount of sodium in local school lunches.
Susan Mobley, school nutrition supervisor for Cleveland City Schools, and Emily Brown, supervisor of nutrition services for Bradley County Schools, have been holding joint in-service meetings for school cafeteria workers and consulting each other as they try to decide how to align lunch and breakfast menus with the requirement to cut back on sodium.
“It’s a considerable reduction from what we’re used to,” Mobley said.
She said both local school systems started to prepare after learning the changes would be needed during the 2014-2015 school year.
Both school systems are part of the same “buying group,” a group of school systems that purchases bulk food and supplies together to cut down on costs.
Brown explained the local school systems have already been swapping out higher-sodium versions of food for lower-sodium ones, like cans of low-sodium tomatoes.
Other swaps have come in the form of substituting menu items.
For example, last year’s chicken quesadillas have been replaced by beef quesadillas on lunch menus because they found the beef had less sodium than chicken.
Some school breakfast menus may include breakfast sandwiches that are served on buns rather than the higher-sodium biscuits.
Mobley said one tried-and-true way to cut down on sodium is to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables, because even canned versions of the same items can have sodium the fresh produce does not.
Still, both nutrition supervisors admitted it has been a challenge to figure out what to cut from menus and what to leave.
Many “kid-friendly” food items that have been served in school cafeterias contain large amounts of sodium, Mobley said.
Brown noted even items like milk contain sodium that has to be included in the total amount allowed in school meals.
“You find hidden sodium everywhere,” Brown said.
She explained the school systems are trying to keep as many popular items as they can on the menus, while still meeting federal nutrition requirements. Because kids have come to expect certain menu items, they have been trying to keep what they can.
For example, pizza will remain on local school menus this year.
“Our goal is for them to look forward to school lunch,” Brown said.
Both supervisors admit that school lunch menus look a lot different than they did when they were children.
Though it may be challenging for school systems to adapt their menus, Mobley said it is all for the best because it may allow children to grow up eating healthier food than they did.
In the future, she said there may be fewer children turning up their noses at the idea of eating items like fresh vegetables.
“We have the opportunity for them to be raised differently,” Mobley said.
Brown pulled out an article she had been reading about the amount of sodium contained in fast-food meals.
According to the amounts of sodium said to be contained in items like cheeseburgers and French fries, such meals have sodium contents that well exceed the amounts allowed in school cafeteria meals.
Some children and teenagers have grown up eating fast food and have grown accustomed to the taste of such meals.
Those students, Brown said, may find they have to adjust to having much less sodium in their food.
She said the schools have been trying to find ways to substitute some items for others and make more use of low-sodium seasonings to ensure the meals are still flavorful.
“People are concerned that it’s going to be of lower quality,” Mobley said. “That’s not the case.”
Some have criticized federal school nutrition requirements by saying children are not getting enough food to eat. The local school nutrition supervisors said that is a common misconception.
The National School Lunch Program outlines guidelines for a practice called “offer versus serve.” Students are offered a selection of items like main entrees and vegetables to make up what can be considered a “reimbursable meal” that can be totally paid for under programs like the Community Eligibility Provision.
If a student does not want all the items that are offered as part of a meal, then they are not served those items. If a child is being given a traditional meal, that means the meal contains less food. Food items can be purchased a la carte, but that requires an extra cost in some cases.
Brown and Mobley explained students are offered enough food to make them full; they just have to take it and eat it.
Some local schools are providing free lunches and breakfasts to their students this year under the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program. The program, which is run by the USDA, allows schools where 40 percent or more of the student body qualify for free or reduced-cost meals to receive financial reimbursement to provide free meals to all students.
School systems can choose whether or not to take part in the program, and schools that are enrolled provide free meals to students regardless of whether or not a particular student qualified to receive free or reduced-cost meals in the past.
The Cleveland City school system has enrolled all of its schools in the program, while three Bradley County schools will be taking part this year. Park View, Taylor and Waterville Community Elementary Schools are the three county schools where students will not have to worry about paying for breakfast or lunch.
Brown stressed students at other county schools who need help paying for meals can still apply to receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Applications are available at each school and online at www.bradleyschools .org.
To help ensure students know what is available to them as part of a meal, Mobley suggested parents sit down with their students to help them plan out what they will eat the next day.
She said many students — including young children — don’t realize they can ask for help in the cafeteria.
“It’s hard for us to get that opportunity,” Mobley said. “It’s hard for us to know who needs help.”
Both school nutrition supervisors said they would love to hear any questions about school meals or suggestions for new meals parents or students may have for them.
Brown can be contacted by email at ebrown@bradley schools.org, and Mobley can be reached at email@example.com.