Schools say it's too soon to judge new lunch menus


Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on

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By Julie Anderson / World-Herald staff writer

The start of the last school year brought big changes to students’ lunch trays: smaller rolls and buns, lots more fruit and vegetables, and a dearth of desserts.

This year’s changes under the continued rollout of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will focus on breakfast. Perhaps the biggest shift will require that half of all grain products offered with breakfast are whole-grain rich, or at least 51 percent whole grain. Next year, all grains at both meals must be whole-grain rich.

But these changes aren’t likely to cause near the tray-shock that last year’s stirred. Kansas students even protested in a YouTube video.

Several local school nutrition officials said they’ve nearly met the whole-grain requirements already, thanks to changes they’ve been making over time and efforts by manufacturers to remake products. Kellogg’s, for example, has reformulated all of its cereals to be whole-grain rich.

“Kids aren’t going to see anything different than what they saw last year,” said Diane Zipay, nutrition services director for the Westside Community Schools.

Justin Wiley, food service director for the Millard Public Schools, said the district is well on its way to meeting the whole-grain requirements.

As manufacturers roll out more whole-grain products like pancakes and French toast, he’s adding them to menus. The only thing he hasn’t found so far is a whole-grain rich cinnamon roll.

Tammy Yarmon, the Omaha Public Schools’ nutrition services director, said she’s pulled Belgian waffles because she hasn’t been able to locate a whole-grain rich version. She’ll go with pancakes instead.

Breakfast is getting additional attention these days. Studies have indicated strong correlations between school breakfast programs and academic achievement.

Some schools are going with a Grab-and-Go breakfast option. Yarmon said seven or eight OPS schools will add that option this fall.

Last spring, the district had eight elementary schools offering the program, which allows students to grab a bagged breakfast and take it to their classrooms. A number of other area school districts were piloting or considering adding the program.

School districts also continue to adjust to last year’s changes and to prepare for those yet to come.

While the bulk of last year’s lunch rule changes remain in place, daily and weekly maximums on proteins and grains were suspended, at least temporarily. Meals still must meet calorie limits, but the change has provided additional flexibility in planning menus.

The breakfast and lunch rules apply to public and private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Yarmon said the change means she’ll be able to use local products, such as Smart Chicken drumsticks, because the chicken legs no longer will have to be uniform enough in size to meet precise protein limits.

Zipay said the easing of grain rules allowed her to put sub sandwiches back on the menu. She’s also been able to settle on a slightly smaller tortilla that’s still big enough to hold all of the healthy brown rice and beans that comes in a Qdoba-style stuffed burrito.

“This is sort of a growing year,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure it out.”

Districts also are beginning to prepare for additional changes next year, including added fruit or veggies for breakfast, the first phase of new sodium limits and new rules for foods sold outside the cafeteria in vending machines, snack bars and school stores. The standards are intended to replace fatty, sugary snacks with healthier ones like baked chips.

The snack standards would not affect lunches or treats for birthday parties, holidays and other school celebrations. After-school bake sales and fundraisers also would be exempt.

And in-school fundraisers still would be allowed, as long as they were infrequent or the products met nutritional standards. Some school districts, as well as 39 states, including Nebraska and Iowa, already have some guidelines of their own. States can have stricter rules than those set by the federal government.

Yarmon said she’s removed hot Cheetos for this year. They won’t make the grade next year, and she’d rather ease students into the changes. School principals, too, have been reviewing what’s in their vending machines, she said. OPS doesn’t have convenience stores in schools.

Wiley said Millard middle schools already meet HealthierUS School Challenge guidelines, which line up with the new rules. The high schools, which do have C-stores, are about 80 percent compliant. All that remains is to review beverages. Most already are calorie-free, low-calorie or 100 percent juice. In fact, the district is adding fountain juice machines to the stores.

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