Bedford Responds to New School Nutrition Standards

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Bedford has largely taken the new federal and state school nutrition policies in stride. But looking closely at the new rules and what they mean to a range of stakeholders, the new standards have required a certain amount of adaptation from everyone involved.

The background of the issue is this:Federal standards that have taken effect this fall require that school lunch trays contain more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium, fat and sugar. In many cases these requirements mean a shift away from processed foods—or at least away from conventionally processed foods—although purveyors are scrambling to provide products that meet the updated nutritional requirements.

While the federal standards cover school lunches, the new state standards cover so-called “competitive foods” including a la carte options offered during lunch—like individual servings of yogurt or a sandwich— vending machine food, break time choices in the cafeteria, curriculum-related foods prepared in or brought to the classroom, and bake sale goodies. In the original writing of the legislation, the state law prohibited most competitive foods, but that guideline has since been softened and there is more flexibility now for individual school systems to establish their own rules in that regard.

According to Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills, Bedford allows bake sales for fundraisers and also curriculum-related foods at the middle and high school levels. At the elementary level, however,one change that the new state food policy has prompted is that things like cupcake birthday celebrations are a thing of the past.

As far as Sills knows, there has been no parental or student unrest about the changes. His office sent out letters before the beginning of school to all families, and they have received no negative feedback to date.

Ken Whittier, director of Bedford’s school lunch program, has been on the front lines of these changes and has experienced amore rocky transition from the old ways to the new. “The challenge is to provide students with what they want from a more limited list of options,” Whittier said. “We hope that the kids will like the foods that also meet the regulations. We try to offer the right mix of foods and also offer value to the families.”

The vendors that Whittier orders from are also trying to revise the nutritional content of foods they carry. For instance, a canned fruit that once arrived packed in syrup now comes packed in water instead. Hamburger is leaner. Cookies are low-fat.

On an average day, Whittier’s staff serves about 1,000 lunches in the four schools. He says that even before the change in food standards, kids often didn’t eat all the lunch on their plates because mealtime often means social time and it’s hard to fit both things into the few minutes they have for a meal. He has heard reports, specifically at the elementary level, of fresh fruits and vegetables being thrown away, but says that at the high school level, students have responded very well to the changes. He speculates that their relative maturity and understanding that nutrition is a science- and health-based issue has made the transition easier.

“They know this is important to do for their health. We’ve made a good start, I think, and I hope there’s a positive impact,” Whittier added.