Hannibal Implements Healthy Changes In School Lunches

By: Kari Hively, Contributing Writer
OSWEGO, NY – Hannibal School District is one of many schools throughout the country making healthy changes to its menus due to regulations set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. (27)

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law on Dec. 13, 2010, by President Barack Obama and changed nutrition standards for schools nationwide in an effort to combat child malnutrition.

According to Debbie Richardson, Hannibal School District’s food service coordinator, the government’s new standards set specific nutritional requirements on grains, fruits and vegetables, sodium levels, calorie levels and sugar grams.

As a result of these new requirements, Hannibal School District began implementing changes to the menus in 2013 and will gradually continue to make changes over a five-year period, Richardson said.

Student meals are required to consist of at least 50 percent in whole grain products, Richardson says. Ninety percent of the grains that Hannibal School District currently serves are whole grains, but they are required to reach 100 percent by July 2014.

Before the new standards had been adapted, a student could, for example, purchase a slice of pizza and a carton of milk at the school’s cafeteria for lunch because it filled the old requirements for a milk product, a bread product, and a protein product.

Now in order for schools to receive state financial aid, the state requires that a student not only fulfill the old requirements when selecting their meal, but are also required to take either a fruit or a vegetable with their lunch, according to Richardson.

“That was one of the biggest hurdles for the students,” Richardson said. “They got very upset. They’re like, ‘I’m going to take it. I’m going to throw it away.’ They just wanted to come through and have it the way it was. We couldn’t allow them to.”

Although students may not agree, registered dietician Molly Morgan expresses her appreciation with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in that all students are now required to take a fruit or vegetable.

“One piece I really like is that all reimbursable meals must include a fruit and or vegetable,” Morgan said. “In the past, fruits and vegetables were always offered but not a requirement for students to take.”

Morgan has worked at the Hannibal School District and Richardson for five years in nutrition planning, and coordinates with other area school districts through a cooperative agreement, “Smart Choice Café”, where districts work on selecting food products and developing recipes that students like but also meet the requirements.

In an effort to help students positively adapt to the new changes, Rob Piascik, a health teacher at Hannibal School District, coordinated taste-tests with Richardson to allow students in his classes to participate in choosing upcoming menu items that they enjoy.

According to Piascik, his students go to the cafeteria during class time where Richardson has selected potential menu options for them to sample. The students then try out the foods and fill out a survey explaining which foods they liked the most. The students really enjoy being able to taste-test the new foods, Piascik says.

When asked if the students are having an easier time with the new menu adjustments, Richardson says that students are now less reluctant to take the fruits and vegetables and are more receptive to the whole grains.

“We are finding that they seem to be eating the fruit more,” Richardson said, “but the vegetables are still a hard sell. They do not like legumes.”

According to Richardson, her budget often does not afford her to purchase fresh vegetables for the district and so students receive the vegetables covered in the budget because of their cheaper cost.

Although the standards set out to achieve ultimate student nutrition, the strict standards are causing a lot of schools to struggle financially and leave districts searching for the cheapest options due to low funding in their budgets.

Schools are only given so much government funding every year and according to Richardson, the amount that the state has been providing is not enough to cover the expenses of foods that are up to regulation standards.

“It’s been very hard on the food service departments,” Richardson said. “We’ve been struggling financially.”