Berkshire students, cafeteria programs find challenges in new nutritional guidelines


SHEFFIELD -- Wrapping up his third-period Spanish class, Mount Everett Regional High School sophomore Joe Makuc feels a sense of resignation.

Why? Because it's lunchtime.

New federal and state cafeteria health regulations, designed to reduce the national overweight and obesity epidemic, have put a higher priority on healthier, less fattening food since August 2012. The 16-year-old Makuc and his friends are fully aware of the changes, but they've been slow to embrace them.

The vegetables can be "stewy" and "mushy." White bread has been replaced with whole grain for everything from the pizza crust to the bun for the chicken sandwich. Even though the fruit display with bananas and apples looks nice, many students take a pass. In the nation's schools, gone are the days of salty pizza, fried foods and snack cakes.

Few students are fans of the newly implemented U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] regulations that also make meal portions smaller, he said.

"If the price goes up, I think I'll pack my own lunch," Makuc said. "I don't think it will be worth [the price]."

Cafeteria revenues down

Makuc's sentiments shouldn't come as a surprise to Southern Berkshire Regional School District officials who are projecting a $90,000 budget deficit in the cafeteria program this year in part because districtwide cafeteria participation has decreased from 53 percent last school year to 48 percent this year. The district serves students in Alford, Egre mont, Monterey, New Marl bor ough, and Sheffield.

Countywide, school cafeterias that had been financially healthy are now experiencing budgetary problems. Other problems include food being thrown away, less diversified menus, and students left hungry because of meal-size requirements.

Two regulations implemented for this school year are impacting school lunches.

The USDA's Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act aims to improve students' nutrition and reduce child obesity through its National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. The act eliminates whole milk in favor of reduced fat, boosts whole grain foods, cuts calories on menus, and increases fruit and vegetable options. Virtually all public schools in the nation participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch program, which subsidizes and regulates school breakfasts and lunches.

The state's Competitive Foods and Beverages Nutrition Standards limits and prohibits in some cases the sale of sugary or caffienated beverages and traditional high-calorie snacks sold in vending machines.

Statewide, participation in the cafeteria program dropped from 55.37 percent in October 2011 to 52.88 in October 2012 following the implementation of the regulations, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education administrator Kathleen Millett, who oversees the state's school nutrition, health, and safety program.

Officials from several school systems say they are serving fewer meals this year in part due to the new food rules, including Southern Berkshire Regional, Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Pittsfield Public Schools, Lee Public Schools and Central Berkshire Regional School District. Millett said that Adams-Cheshire School Reg ional District and Williamstown Elementary School had an increase overall in the number of meals sold.

Less satisfaction

Students express frustration with school lunch, citing a lack of variety and less appetizing meals.

Mount Everett Regional High School senior Stefan Zdziarski, 17, plays on the varsity soccer team and he buys two meals, neither of which he is salivating over.

"It's definitely a disappointment. There's not much variety anymore," he said.

Mount Everett Regional High School sophomore Bradley Luplani stopped buying lunch and started bringing it because he wasn't a fan of the cafeteria guidelines requiring whole grain in food and the reduced sugar content.

Even students working on a program to create tasty meals within the federal regulations were challenged. Charlie Gibson, a senior at Monument Mountain, along with his peers, invited local professional chefs to create appetizing dishes.

The professionally prepared meals left students hungry.

"[The] students could only get a tiny amount of sausage [in the pasta]," Gibson said.

Federal guidelines have been loosened since December, according to Rose Goddard, who runs the Central Berkshire Regional School District's cafeteria, but depending on the grade level, students are limited to 8 to 9 ounces of meat and 8 to 12 ounces of grain over the course of a week.

Berkshire school officials broadly expressed support for healthier meals, but they said it's resulting in students bringing unhealthy lunches from home.

"I think it's a good thing that they are trying to do," Goddard said. "It might have been a little too much too soon, but time and patience will matter."

Many school officials held off on criticizing the regulations because it's complicated to assess.

Goddard said the federal law required a 25-cent cost increase in Central Berkshire Regional's lunch price, which also may have prompted some to bring their own lunches.

School systems that have a large free or reduced lunch population of students, such as Pittsfield Public Schools, might have dissatisfied students, but they continue to take advantage of school-provided meals.

Making adjustments

In the Central Berkshire Regional School District, Kittredge Elementary and Becket-Washington have earned prestigious USDA awards in recent years for incorporating fruit and vegetables and positive food practices. Kittredge Elementary earned the Heal thier U.S. Challenge award in 2008 and 2012.

Still, the self-sustaining cafeteria program could be on its way to a year-end deficit, according to Central Berkshire Superintendent William Cameron.

"We're going to have to make a mid-year reduction in force because we haven't been able to put out enough meals," Cameron said.

The district has sold 19 percent fewer meals, according to Central Berkshire business administrator Melissa Falkowski, but that needs to be factored against a 5 percent reduction in enrollment and the 25-cent increase in price mandated by the federal rules.

"The problem is, for whatever reason, there has been an inadequate foundation for doing this," Cameron said.

Several other districts are experiencing greater financial problems. Berkshire Hills Regional School District was losing $39,344 in 2011 before the state and federal regulations were implemented. This year, it's $100,000, although reimbursements should decrease that amount, according to business administrator Sharon Harrison.

The Berkshire Hills School Committee board doubled the budget allocation from $25,000 in 2011 to $50,000 in 2012 to cover anticipated cafeteria losses, Harrison said.

Southern Berkshire Regional district officials have previously said that declining student enrollment, the loss in profit from a la carte sales, and higher costs associated with making these healthier foods are associated with its $90,000 cafeteria deficit.

Pittsfield Public School decreased the meals sold in September and October, but the number rebounded in the following months, nutrition director Sylvana Bryan said. But she's expecting a significant drop in the $146,958.14 in a la carte sales, which had been sold at Pittsfield and Taconic high schools.

In overseeing the cafeteria, Bryan expressed confidence that children love chicken, and she said she's experimenting with different glazes on roasted chicken and less processed breading for chicken nuggets.

"I think the intent [of the new food rules] is very good," Bryan said. "Once they get the tweaks out of it, it will help the kids immensely."

The cafeteria program at Pittsfield Public Schools benefits from being a larger program with an account reserve of $89,000, according to Bryan, which allows her to experiment.

In upstate New York though, the Niskayuna Central School District turned its back on the National School Lunch Program because it was on its way toward a $70,000 deficit. According to news articles, school committee members from the district had hoped that participation would offset around $150,000 in loss state and federal aid.

No Massachusetts schools have dropped out of the state nutrition program, said Millett, and she said that the state is offering preparation and financial budgeting workshops and developing a four-week cafeteria menu that districts can adopt.

Makuc, the sophomore at Southern Berkshire Regional, is philosophical about his lunch. He wrote an article earlier in the year predicting students would stop eating the food, but he isn't upset at the local cafeteria director.

"I think we all know it's not the food service director's fault or anyone else's. They just got put into this situation made by regulations from elsewhere," he said. 

Massachusetts Competitive Foods and Beverages Nutrition Standards at a glance ...

Here are the nutrition standards set forth for foods sold during the school day in Massachusetts, according to the Competitive Foods and Beverages Nutrition Standards regulation. These so-called competitive foods refer to items sold separately from school meals, such as in vending machines and at school-sponsored events. The guidelines don't apply to the school breakfast and lunch program, which is governed by U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. As of Aug. 1, 2012, Massachusetts schools were required to implement the standards.

Juice: 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice, with no added sugar.

Juice, portion size:4-ounce servings or less.

Milk: Low-fat (1 percent or less) and fat-free milk. (Including alternative milk beverages such as lactose-free and soy)

Milk, portion size: 8-ounce servings or less.

Milk, added sugar: Flavored milk with no more than 22 grams total sugar per 8 ounces.

Water: May contain natural flavorings and/or carbonation. Should not contain added sugars, sweeteners or artificial sweeteners.

Beverages with added sugar or sweeteners: Any beverages with added sugar or sweeteners not already addressed will be phased out by Aug. 1, 2013. Flavored milk or milk substitutes that have the same amount or less sugar than plain, fat-free or low-fat milk are allowed.

Other beverages (Soda, sports drinks, teas, waters, etc.): Only juice, milk, milk substitutes and water should be sold or provided.

Calories: Foods should be 200 calories or less per item. À la carte entrées should not exceed the calorie count of entrée items of the equivalent portion size offered as a part of the National School Lunch Program.

Fat: Foods should have 35 percent or less of their total calories from fat.

Saturated fat: Foods should have 10 percent or less of their total calories from saturated fat.

Trans fat: All foods should be trans fat-free.

Fat exemptions: 1-ounce servings of nuts, nut butters, seeds, and reduced-fat cheese are exempt from the fat standards.

Sugar: Foods should have 35 percent or less of their total calories from sugar.

Sugar exemptions: 100 percent fruit with no added sugar, and low-fat or nonfat yogurt (including drinkable yogurt) with no more than 30 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, are exempt from the sugar standard.

Sodium: Foods should have 200 mg of sodium or less per item. À la carte entrées should have a maximum of 480 mg of sodium per item.

Grains: All breads or grain-based products should be whole grain (whole grain should be listed first in the ingredient statement). These include crackers, granola bars, chips, bakery items, pasta, rice, etc.

Caffeine: Trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine (such as that found in chocolate) are allowed as long as the item complies with the rest of the nutrition standards.

Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners are not permitted.

Source: Executive Office of Health and Human Services


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