Whatever might be said about school lunches, the goal of Valencia County school districts is to offer children nutritious food in healthy portions.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her cause to fight childhood obesity and childhood diabetes, which has tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To that end, she championed upping the standards of the United States Department of Agriculture subsidized public school lunches to make them healthier.
In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It is the largest change in public school nutrition services in more than 15 years.
The new USDA standards align school food programs with the latest nutrition science and the reality in America’s schools.
The programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and the state of New Mexico offers schools additional money for meals if the school has a high percentage of children on the free and reduced lunch program.
This month’s reimbursements for the federally-funded food programs are up in the air because of the federal government’s shutdown.
Almost 80 percent of students in the two Valencia County public school districts receive free or reduced rate lunches, free breakfast and afternoon snacks.
“There’s a hunger problem in the county because the income is so low and the economic depression,” said David Carter, Belen Consolidated Schools director of Student Support Services. “So, feeding these kids is a benefit to pretty much everyone in the county. Even if they have a higher income, we ensure that they get a nutritional meal at least once, possibly twice a day, if they participate.
“Studies have shown that the kids who receive their nutrition are more apt to benefit from the education that’s being presented to them,” he said. “They’re alert, they’re aware of what’s going on, they’re not thinking about hunger, they’re thinking about their studies, and they do quite a bit better in school than those who are malnourished.”
The school districts receive most of the funding for student nutrition services from USDA. They are all reimbursement programs, so the schools purchase the food, serve the meals and, as long as they meet the USDA standards, the schools are reimbursed, said Angela Haney, director of Los Lunas School District student nutrition services.
The programs help families save money on their grocery bills during the week and feasibly provides them the opportunity to spend a little more on healthier foods, said Haney.
“It brings federal dollars into the community,” she said. “It provides jobs with benefits. You know, there aren’t a lot of jobs where you can make $7.50 an hour and be able to get insurance, dental, vision and retirement. There aren’t a whole lot of those jobs available, but this program provides that for the student nutrition staff.”
The act requires public schools to update their student meal programs, adding more fruits and vegetables than ever before.
“They set guidelines and we have to meet those guidelines,” said Janet Sanchez, Belen Student Nutrition Supervisor. “They have a daily pattern, and then weekly. All that is programmed into our future kid’s menu, and it counts all the calories, fat â€• everything.”
Belen has 12 schools and, of the 4,223 students it had last year, 77 percent were on the free and reduced lunch program. Belen served more than one million meals last year.
The Los Lunas Schools has 16 schools. It had 8,399 students last year, of which 72 percent were on the free and reduced lunch program. The district served 1.5 million meals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in children can lead to childhood Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke and several types of cancers.
Student lunch programs are now designed to limit caloric intake to the optimum amount at each age group.
“It’s not the quantity that determines the nutritional value,” said Carter. “It’s the quality.”
In earlier days, people needed more calories because they labored on the farm and in the fields. Work was more physical. But today, families spend more time sitting at a computer, in a classroom, at the television set or playing computer games.
“Now, we’re in more sedentary job positions,” said Carter. “We don’t burn the calories like our parents and their parents before them. But some of those philosophies are still hanging on.”
Schools are required to offer fruits and vegetables every day of the week, and the amounts have increased. In fact, students can have second and third helpings — as much fruits and vegetables as they want, said Haney.
Lunches include teriyaki chicken with brown rice, tacos with lettuce and tomatoes, enchiladas, spaghetti and meatballs, barbecue pork sandwiches, turkey and cheese hoagies, to name a few, and each comes with low-fat milk or fruit juice. Each meal must contain at least three-quarters of a cup of vegetables and a half cup of fruits.
The USDA stipulates that vegetables must include dark-green and orange-to-red varieties, beans and peas. Meals must be less than 10 percent saturated fat, have less than 430 mg of sodium for grades kindergarten through fifth, less than 470 mg for grades six to eight, and less than 500 mg for high school students. All meals must be trans-fat free.
This year, schools began using flour with a 51 percent whole grain content in all baked goods. Each year, the sodium content of meals will be reduced, and more nutritious foods will be introduced. All students participating in the program are required to take a fruit or vegetable at every meal.
“We really try to make the meals as kid-appealing and healthy and wholesome as we possibly can,” Haney said.
Janet Sanchez said she is seeing more students eat the fruits and vegetables than when the program first started.
Students are also given short nutrition lessons by their teachers about the origin, nutrient content and growing season for the fruits and vegetables they are being served.
The goal of the lessons is to introduce children to healthier foods, encourage them to eat better, and prepare them for the changes taking place in their lunches, Sanchez said.
The teachers are given handouts on the foods that will be served each week, or they can create their own lessons, Sanchez said.
Carter added that, “Teaching the students is not a problem, it’s teaching the parents, also, on what good nutritional habits are.”
The USDA program also encourages school districts to buy locally grown produce and food products. It launched a $5 million Farm-to-School grant program in 2012 to increase the amount of healthy, local food in schools.
Through USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, the department has worked to increase access to nutritious food through the development of strong local and regional food systems.
Last year, Los Lunas Schools spent $25,000 on local produce, and $275,000 on local milk from Creamland Dairies, said Haney.
The district also buys chile and tortillas from New Mexico companies, mainly Bueno Foods, she said.
Belen Schools buys locally whenever they can.
“We met with local farmers in Socorro just to talk and show what our menus were, what we serving, and what they could possibly plant the next year,” Sanchez said. “There were a few school districts and a bunch of the local farmers.”
Belen Schools has bought food from Sichler, Wagner and Armijo farms. These farms and others are working with the U.S. Commodities Bureau.
“The commodities bureau is trying to help them deliver, and so they’re working together,” Sanchez said. “Commodities delivers food once a month. We have purchased green chile from a local farmer, and we’ve ordered the apples, the watermelons, the cantaloupe and the squash.”
Breakfast After the Bell legislation allows breakfast to be served in the classroom during class time to ensure that every single student has access to breakfast. All elementary and middle school students can get free breakfast.
The breakfasts are usually hand-held, grab-and-go foods including burritos, cheese sticks, yogurt, cereal, peanut butter and jelly pocket sandwiches, applesauce cups and other items, Sanchez said.
“If families are sitting down, having breakfast as a family, we certainly don’t want to interrupt that,” Haney said. “But for so many parents, they’re trying to get everybody off to work, off to school — they don’t have time to do a healthy breakfast.”
The free and reduced meal program eligibility is based on the income of the parents or guardians, and the number of household members.
There is special assistance, called Provision 2, that provides all student meals at no charge to schools with a high enough percentage of free and reduced lunch qualified students. With Provision 2, families only have to re-apply every four years, rather than annually.
“We have all our (elementary schools) on the fresh fruit and vegetable program, but we also have them on Provision 2,” Carter said. “So, breakfast and lunch, there’s no charge to any of the students (in elementary or middle schools).
“It is a program that allows us to reduce our administration costs by serving lunches to all the students at no cost to the students or their families,” he said. “So, it makes our count easier when we submit for the reimbursements.”
Next year, public schools will be able to apply for community eligibility of Provision 2, which reduces the application burden to once every four years and provides free meals to all students at the schools that qualify.
The USDA Summer Food Service program is free to everyone ages 1 through 18, and is administered through the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
This summer Los Lunas served more than 66,000 meals, and Belen served more than 11,000.
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