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Trump's school lunch menu gets thumbs up from local cafeteria directors

President Trump hasn't been able to lock down a travel ban, or repeal Obamacare, but he has succeeded in one area: changing school food.

And local school cafeteria directors think Trump's moves to loosen Obama-era nutrition standards will encourage students to reject less of their lunches.

"It doesn't put such a chokehold on the items that we can serve," said Sandy Cocca, head of food service at Sweet Home Central School District. "We don't want to put something on a plate that they're going to throw out. We want them to consume what's on the plate."

Former First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded the regulations, which set fat, sugar and sodium limits on school foods. Health advocates praised those requirements, which went into effect in 2012.

In the cafeteria, though, kids balked at eating some of the food.

"A whole-wheat spaghetti – they won't touch it," said Kim Roll, food director at Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

Lobbying groups for nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools also called the Obama regulations too strict.

Last month, Trump's Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue relaxed the rules.

An upcoming requirement to further curb sodium in meals – a tough ask and an even tougher sell, say cafeteria directors – has been delayed. Schools also can continue getting exemptions from serving 100 percent whole grain-rich food.

And back on the menu: 1 percent chocolate milk, not just the fat-free variety.

Lunch trays on the counter in the cafeteria at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in Depew, Friday, June 9, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Kids eating school's bagels again

Several cafeteria managers praised the move.

"This letting-up-a-bit is a good thing for schools," said Roll, who has worked as a food director for 27 years and for the last 10 at Ken-Ton.

The story was similar at Cayuga Heights Elementary, in the Depew School District, where Food Service Director Barbara Albi applied for and received a waiver a few years ago after students stopped eating the 100 percent whole grain bagels at breakfast. Reviews of the 51 percent whole grain bagels have been better.

"The best bagels ever," third-grader Cathryn Lohr, 10, said Friday, seated at a lunch table with classmates.

"Squishy," 9-year-old Isabelle Hoffhines called them.

"And buttery," interjected Sienna Seely, also 9.

That's the kind of exemption the administration's moves will continue to allow.

At Frontier Central School District, Food Service Director Jason Whipple said his staff will be switching from 100 percent whole grain pizza to a 51 percent, enriched whole grain option.

He thinks the federal plans will let food directors be more creative in what they serve students.

"I just hope they don't go back too far," he said.

Districts tinkering with menus

Food directors said they would have struggled to meet the now-delayed July target for sodium – up to 935 milligrams per week for elementary lunches, 1,035 for middle schools and 1,080 for high schools.

A tray with milk, an apple, half a cup of broccoli and a hamburger on a bun would not have met the elementary school standard, Cocca said.

A tray with fat-free milk, mustard, an orange, low-sodium green beans and a turkey wrap would have exceeded all three limits, according to a pamphlet from the School Nutrition Association, the main group that has lobbied for changes.

"So what do you serve?" Cocca asked.

It's a tug-of-war between serving students healthier foods and foods they will like and eat.

A cafeteria worker puts lunch trays on the counter at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in Depew, Friday, June 9, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

When kids choose not to eat school lunches, schools lose control over how healthy their students eat. If students aren't drinking the milk or eating the food at school, directors worry about what they're choosing instead.

There is also debate about how much to slow the regulations and at what age group.

"We may be doing a disservice to the little ones who are used to it," said Bridget O’Brien Wood, director of the food service in Buffalo Public Schools. "I don't want to undo what we did."

She said city schools could decide to reduce whole grains at the high school level, where more students are used to older school meals, but keep them the same for elementary children, who have grown up under the Obama standards.

Other directors spoke of similar tinkering, and none of them wants to take a step backward by swapping out healthy food that students enjoy.

That's the case at Cayuga Heights – the third-graders who met with The Buffalo News all liked the fat-free chocolate milk they've been drinking in school.

"Each district is trying to find the right place for their students," Roll said. "You just have to work with what your kids are telling you they'll accept."

1 percent milk returning

Sweet Home, Ken-Ton, Frontier and Buffalo will all be offering 1 percent flavored milk in at least some of their schools in the fall. Fat-free will remain the only option in Depew schools, where Albi, the director, said it has been accepted.

The directors say they don't want other aspects of the Obama standards to disappear, like mandated fruits and vegetables. They just want leeway in difficult areas where the costs can outweigh the benefits.

"No one's abandoning that idea," O'Brien Wood said, referring to reducing youth obesity, the goal of the old standards. "I think we've had to look at what's working and what's not working, and change things from there."

School lunch changes:

  • Tighter sodium level per week delayed until 2020.
  • 1 percent flavored milk can be served instead of just fat-free versions.
  • Schools can continue to get waivers to serve less than 100 percent whole-grain food. At least 50 percent whole-grain still required.
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