SIOUX CITY | Greasy tater tots and fried chicken are being banished from cafeterias next school year, part of a nationwide switch to healthy menu items. And that could translate into more costs for parents.
New United States Department of Agriculture guidelines limit students’ calorie intake, curb trans fat and sodium consumption, and increase fresh fruit and vegetable servings to promote healthier eating habits. The changes are part of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity.
The changes took effect July 1. Many area school districts have spent the past year preparing for the switch.
"We are kind of ahead of the game already. We already changed our menus," said Al Leber, superintendent of the Dakota Valley School District, where an all-you-can-eat salad bar was added. "The only thing that surprised us with the changes was the price increase. Last year, we raised prices by 5 cents, and in July we will raise them by a nickel."
Prices also increased in Sioux City by a nickel and South Sioux City by 10 cents.
The USDA is mandating that districts increase the price of lunches to better cover the actual costs of producing meals.
Vernon Fisher, superintendent of the South Sioux City Community Schools, said the increase is supposed to bring full-priced lunches closer to the price of federally subsidized lunches.
In some cases, students buying a full-priced meal pay less money than what the government reimburses districts for a subsidized lunch, Fisher said. The USDA determined the price difference occurred because some schools used the federal subsidy to reduce price of full-priced lunches.
Rich Luze, food service director for Sioux City schools, said he hopes parents don’t just notice the price increase. The USDA guidelines also encourage schools to offer new vegetables such as kale, watercress and bok choy.
Those same regulations do not offer tips on how to get students to eat those vegetables. As a result, many schools stick to traditional foods they know students will eat.
“We want to minimize waste. If students don’t eat it, it becomes a leftover,” Luze said. “Eventually it spoils and we throw it away. But the kids are pretty good about eating most fruit; they like carrots and they take celery if we offer it with peanut butter to dip it in.”
More nutrition changes will be found at vending machines.
Soda and sugary drinks have been replaced with fruit drinks and calorie laden snacks were replaced with healthier alternatives, such as baked potato chips. Many schools also unplug vending machines during lunch hours to force students to eat the USDA-compliant meals.
Meals that meet federal guidelines will receive an extra 6 cents in subsidies from the USDA, Leber said. That is the first increase districts have seen in almost three decades.
The increase does not makeup for the total increased cost in providing healthier meals, Leber added. That’s another reason districts have been mandated by the USDA to raise meal prices.
According to the USDA, the new nutrition guidelines will cost an extra $3.2 billion during the next five years.
In South Sioux City, parent Maria Vazquez says she already spends about $20 a week on lunches for her two children, ages 13 and 10. Vazquez said she will notice the 10-cent per meal increase her school district is implementing when classes start.
Vazquez added that changes are needed for the lunch menu for nutrition and taste. A chicken nugget meal with orange dipping sauce did not go over well with her children’s taste buds.
“It’s kind of difficult when you pay for lunch and they don’t eat it,” she said. “I try to have them bring in cold lunches when they don’t like what’s on the menu. The kids have to eat, and I’m still going to have to pay for it.”
Despite the price increase, Leber said he believes parents are still getting a good deal for lunch, especially with the new nutrition guidelines.
“To still get a healthy meal for $2.20, that’s a hard bargain to beat, and I think most parents know that,” Leber said. “They are trying to make meals more nutritious, and when you do that, you are cutting out the junk food. That comes with a price.”