The regulations are supposed to reflect the department’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is updated every five years. Despite the USDA not making any changes to school nutrition in over 15 years, many school districts including Jefferson County Public Schools have not waited to improve school menus.
It may have seemed strange for many Americans to hear Congress was preventing some of the USDA’s recommendations for new school nutrition standards last year.
When headlines read pizza would continue being countered as a vegetable, it quickly became a subject of conversation, and a target for jokes like this one from Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live.
“At this rate it won’t be long before eating French fries will count as taking French,” Meyers said.
Congress argued certain recommendations, like demoting the nutrition status of tomato paste found in pizza sauce or cutting out starchy vegetables like potatoes. Lawmakers said it would be too costly for some school districts to implement all the USDA recommendations, which were based off the 2009 recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.
But not all district have found it impossible to begin offering healthier choices.
“I’m active in the national association and I have friends all over the county, I don’t know of anyone who has accredited tomato paste on a pizza as a vegetable,” said Julia Bauscher, director of the nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools.
JCPS serves nearly lunch to nearly 60,000 students daily, making it one of the larger school districts in the country and in many ways it’s set an example of how a district can manage mass nutrition in a healthier way.
JCPS even has its own personal chef, Jim Whaley, who is helping the district redesign its menu.
“These are some locally sources apples and I’m dehydrating these and we’re going to take them to some of the fresh fruit and vegetable schools and let students sample another way to eat fresh fruits,” he said.
Whaley was contracted by JCPS to help find ways to introduce students to healthy foods, which is also the goal of the USDA, which Bauscher says has proposed some ambitious recommendations for school nutrition.
“We want to encourage kids to consume a greater variety of fruits and vegetables and I think they (Congress) thought if they could limit the starchy vegetables that would automatically increase the variety of fruits and vegetables that we offer,” she said.
USDA’s Jani Thornton said, yes, it’s been over 15 years since changes were made, but when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated, not much changes.
After the 2005 guidelines were released, the USDA did, however, start suggesting how to improve school nutrition but the department didn’t mandate the changes like it will Wednesday, said Thornton.
“It’s just everything takes a period of time and it’s input and it’s because it’s not just something a state or a local school district does, it needs input from a variety of folks,” Thornton said.
Whaley has been working on a spaghetti recipe that includes local produce. The district is trying to get a quarter of its produce from local farms this year. It currently contracts with three local farmers and has now added three more as of this week.
JCPS has also been able to reduce sodium in its recipes by nearly 40 percent in the last two years, said Martha Dysart, JCPS nutrition services manager. The USDA is expected to ask schools to reduce sodium by half over the next 10 years.
JCPS isn’t the only district that’s promoting healthy habits. Florida districts have asked students to help prepare meals to learn where their food comes from and in Minnesota a surplus of tomatoes from one farmer helped make fresh pasta sauce.
This has the added benefit of giving kids a culinary education, said Thornton.
“We’ve got kids that have perhaps have never had zucchini at home. We’ve got kids that have never had broccoli before,” she said.
Students like to eat what they know and youth palates may take 10 years to change, said Whaley. This makes his job difficult. Before adding the recipe to the official district cook book, Whaley needs approval from one of the toughest panels: the students.
“If they give us approval then the recipe goes through, if not we’re back to the drawing board,” he said.
Thornton says she expects people to be pleasantly surprised by the updated standards. But Bauscher says for JCPS and other districts, it may be a moot point.
“I think USDA’s standards will be better than they were and I can tell you we’ll probably already be 99 percent there,” she said.