- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - In Western North Carolina, the battle lines are firmly drawn around the biscuit - whole grain and unappealing to many in school lunchrooms across the region.

Until schools won temporary waivers from new federal nutrition requirements, they were required to serve 100 percent whole grain breads, among other new standards that have left lunchroom managers worrying over a drop in meals served.

The standards, including sharp cutbacks on salt and fat and increases in fruits and vegetables, are well intentioned, school officials say. But some students are quietly rebelling against the changes.

Over the last two years, school cafeterias statewide served 12.6 million fewer meals, a 5 percent decline, according to Lynn Harvey, chief of school nutrition services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“There are some people who will not eat a whole grain biscuit because it does not look like the biscuit that grandma has made them throughout the years,” said Haywood County School Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte.

The recent waiver is limited to whole grains, but Nolte’s issues with the school nutrition requirements go beyond biscuits.

Schools are required to place fruits and vegetables on students’ plates and many students are tossing them untouched into the trash.

“We’re spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars every day throwing away perfectly good food,” Nolte said. “And what we would like to do is not to be punished if we put the fruit on the line and let the student pick it up. If they want the banana or the apple or the pear or whatever the fruit is, they can pick it up and eat it.”

Haywood County schools were the first in the state to win the whole grain waiver, prompting the school system to send out a press release proclaiming “Buttermilk biscuits are back.”

Under the waiver, schools can serve 50 percent whole grain items rather than 100 percent. Some whole grain items will remain on the menu, but others will be replaced depending on the district.

The federal rules have been phased in over the last few years, and school systems are still working to adjust.

“It’s a fine line because we want to expose children to more fresh fruits and vegetables, but forcing them to take something that they absolutely will not consume is not achieving the goal,” Harvey said.

Like the rest of the state, Haywood County schools have seen a nearly 5 percent drop in the percentage of students eating in the cafeteria. School workers are also seeing lots of fresh fruit going into the trash.

Madison County’s drop in the school lunch participation is affecting the lunch program’s bottom line.

The number of lunches served declined by 13.5 percent and the number of breakfast meals declined by 14.4 percent, according to Elizabeth Ayers, school nutrition director for Madison County Schools.

With the drop in meals served plus the higher costs of foods like whole grain items, the system is losing 37 cents on each meal it serves, Ayers said. That outweighs the extra 6 cents per meal in reimbursements the system gets for complying with the rules, she said.

“We’re not making enough to survive,” Ayers said.

For each free lunch served, Asheville City Schools’ school nutrition program receives $3.06 in reimbursements.

But Beth Palien, school nutrition director for the system, points out that doesn’t just cover the food. It must cover everything including salaries for workers, benefits and equipment.

“I’m not hopeful, but it would be really great if they increased the reimbursement. It’s increasingly difficult to find good flavorful food for a low cost that we can afford to pay,” Palien said.

A student pays for his school lunch in the Clyde A.Buy Photo

A student pays for his school lunch in the Clyde A. Erwin Middle School cafeteria on April 8. Lunch for this student on this day was a chicken sandwich, whipped potatoes, a banana and an ice cream bar. (Photo: Angeli Wright/awright3@citizen-times.com)

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 spelled out policy and authorized funding for the school nutrition programs.

It included a provision that required school systems “to increase the cost of the paid meal in order to bring it closer in line to the reimbursement rate for the free meal,” according to Harvey.

Those higher lunch prices are also contributing to less participation in the school lunch program, according to school officials.

“Unfortunately, in our state, that priced some children, some families, out of the school nutrition program because the paid lunch price was a little bit too high,” Harvey said.

Like some other school districts, the percentage of Buncombe County students eating school lunch is also down. It has dropped from 73.4 percent in 2010 to just over 67 percent now.

“That certainly in my opinion is a low number,” said Lisa Payne, child nutrition director for Buncombe County Schools. Payne would like to see that percentage closer to 90 percent.

And she’s hoping to get feedback from students like a group at Erwin Middle recently treated to a new attempt to make mashed potatoes taste better.

The version wasn’t on the menu, but Payne wanted to see if maybe it should be. She boosted the flavor with no-salt seasoning, and students seem to like the new version.

Students say they want to see more “home cooked” items and less frozen food.

“I want to come into school and come walking through the cafeteria and be able to smell what my lunch is,” said Zeb Dayton, an Erwin High eighth-grader.

Another eighth-grader, Dreanna Roberts, said, “My least favorite is probably meatloaf. And my favorite is probably something that’s homemade.”

Dayton would like to see the return of a salad bar or maybe a potato bar to the cafeteria.

The salad bar was a causality of the federal regulations, according to Payne.

To be reimbursed for a meal, school cafeteria workers need to make sure each student gets precise serving amounts of vegetables, fruits and protein. There’s no way to be sure of that when students are preparing their own salads.

“The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has very good intentions, however, it went so fast, so extreme, everyone took it so literally, they didn’t know the fallout,” Payne said.

The legislation is set for reauthorization this year, and the national School Nutrition Association is pushing for some changes including letting school systems decide whether to require students to take a fruit or vegetable. The group also wants to make the whole grain waiver permanent and to avoid additional reductions in the allowable sodium levels. In addition, the association would like to see an increase in reimbursements for meals.

Harvey doesn’t want a major overhaul of the legislation, just tweaks that will give districts more flexibility.

“There have been some wonderful, wonderful provisions in that act. I think what people are looking for at this point, at having implemented almost all of the requirements, they are looking for some flexibility to make the program continue to work in their local community,” she said. “Let’s determine what fits in our community within the requirements of nutritious meals.”

In Madison County, cafeteria managers are getting creative, “using their seasoning, and using their spices,” according to Ayers. “They can get it really close. Still every now and then, you’d like to have a pinch of salt,” she said.

Payne is talking with chefs and looking for ways to make school meals more flavorful within the budget and the nutritional restrictions.

When she walked into Erwin Middle School’s cafeteria last week, a student told Payne, “I’m eating it, but it has no flavor.” She responded, “We’re working on that.”

She said the system wants to start nutrition advisory groups at each school, and schools have been doing produce fairs to try to educate and encourage students to try fruits and vegetables.

The cafeteria manager at Erwin High has been given flexibility to experiment with seasonings and spices, according to Payne.

“Once she creates meals, we’re taking them to administrators, students and staff and doing taste testing,” she said. “As they become acceptable recipes, we add the ingredients to the standardized recipe.”

Payne wants to see more scratch-made foods and wants to bring back the smell of fresh-baked rolls to school cafeterias in hopes of tempting students.

Buncombe cafeterias use heat-and-serve rolls now.

“We’re having a baking class over the summer, and we are going back to baking school rolls,” she said.

Payne said the system is also working to get more data on how much food is wasted.

“We’re just looking for common sense balance,” she said.

___

Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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