New standards coming for school meals

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

As states adjust to the new standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Obama in December, Mississippi will have an easier transition.
The federal law renews funding for meals served to low-income students and sets standards for food sold on school campuses.
Its key provision calls for the United States Department of Agriculture to establish nutrition standards for all food sold during the school day, including snacks in vending machines.
It may also require school lunch prices to rise next year.
Because Mississippi already has passed healthy guidelines for its school breakfasts, lunches and snacks that are more demanding than those in many other states, it will have less to do to prepare for the new standards.
“I think they’ll be a step ahead of some states,” said Lanna Kirk, USDA regional director based in Atlanta.
The USDA announced some of its new guidelines on Thursday. They would require schools to cut sodium in meals by more than half, use more whole grains and serve low fat milk.
The new USDA guidelines are a proposal, and it could take several years before they are in place and schools are required to make changes.
They also would limit kids to one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn’t offer french fries every day.
The USDA will also develop standards to cover extra “a la carte” items that supplement school lunches and snacks sold during the school day.
“What is different for us is that the USDA has never really had any requirements for food served outside of breakfast or lunch,” Kirk said. “We have never dealt with food in vending machines. That is new for us.”
Mississippi has had such requirements, and food in vending machines is limited to 200 calories or less per item.
The state also recently increased requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads. It now requires 1-percent milk instead of 2-percent. Those regulations will be more in line with the new requirements.
The biggest change for Mississippi will be could demands for less sodium, said Shane McNeill, director of Healthy Schools for the Mississippi Department of Education.
New standards could require schools to serve twice as many fresh fruits and vegetables, said Lynne Rogers, director of food service for the Tupelo Public School District.
Rogers, who also serves on the state committee that purchases food for school cafeterias, noted that manufacturers would need to adjust their offerings to meet the new standards, particularly the sodium requirements.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act signed in December also will require that free water be made available to all students in the cafeteria.
Schools will receive an additional six cents per meal from the government for low-income students who receive free- and reduced-price school meals. The number of students eligible for those benefits will likely increase.
Schools also could be required to increase the prices of their meals, according to a formula set by the bill.
Rogers said it appears the law would require Tupelo’s meal prices to rise to $2.46 for lunch. The district currently charges $2 for elementary lunches and $2.25 to students in middle school and high school.
The law would permit districts to increase their prices by 10 cents per year until they reach the mandated amount.
Lee County Schools Child Nutrition Director Susan Killens said it is too soon to know the full impact of the law.
Rogers said food service directors will receive more guidance on the new law’s exact requirements during a summer meeting hosted by the Mississippi Department of Education.
She added that the law would be beneficial and would force students to eat healthier foods that are unfamiliar.
“It will be a big change and is something we’ve needed for a long time,” Rogers said. “The only way we will make a difference with the obesity crisis is introducing students to more fruits and vegetables and more whole-grain foods and lower-fat milks. Most children have not been introduced to that.”
McNeill credited Gov. Haley Barbour and state legislators for being ahead of other states in adopting laws to make Mississippi’s schools healthier.
McNeill said that the MDE will make grants available to local school districts this month that will allow them to develop school gardens and increase physical activity at school.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.