School nutrition workers aim for better breakfasts
Gina Nault was on a quest.
She had already scoured the aisles of the annual School Nutrition Association of New Hampshire vendor show last Friday morning, but to no avail. Undaunted, she set out to make the rounds a second time.
Nault, who works in the cafeteria at Pembroke Academy, was on the hunt for whole grains with a breakfast twist. Federal regulations have made the fiber- and nutrient-filled ingredient a hot commodity at nutrition conferences across the country this year.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has been slowly increasing pressure on schools to improve the nutrition of the food they offer students. First, schools only received federal reimbursement for meals that contained at least two servings of 51 percent whole grain products, and schools had to offer a serving of fruit or vegetable.
Last year, the regulations tightened so that the school was only reimbursed if the students took the fruit or vegetable offering.
This year, breakfast will also have to contain two servings of whole grain, and next year, schools will only get reimbursed for breakfast if the students take fruit or veggies at breakfast, too. The regulations also cap the amount of calories, sodium and fat the meals can contain.
Schools have been adapting well to the new lunch regulations, said Danielle Collins, president of the School Nutrition Association of New Hampshire and the director of nutrition for SAU 39 in Amherst.
The challenge is to increase participation in district breakfast programs to ensure that students are starting the school day with healthy fuel for learning, she said.
New Hampshire has the second-lowest rate of student participation in school breakfast programs among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Fewer than 39 percent of students who qualified for and received free or reduced-price lunch also received the breakfast they were eligible for during the 2011-12 school year, according to a national report by the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization that works to eradicate hunger in the United States.
The challenge of increasing participation is different for every district, though, Collins said.
Only about 2 percent of the students at her schools qualify for free and reduced-price meals, so she can bring in higher-end, more expensive ingredients. In fact, she has to present the best food she can at the high school, because otherwise the students will leave and get fast food or other options off campus. That drives down participation and makes her program run a deficit.
At the Henniker Community School, the issue is getting middle school students to eat breakfast at all, said Food Service Director Marty Davis.
Her department prepares breakfast for some students before school and offers a mid-morning snack break for the students in fifth through eighth grades. She’ll be increasing the choices available for both servings, Davis said.
“I am hoping that breakfast participation will increase, but think it’s going to take a little trial and error to see what our labor flow can produce in a reasonable fashion. The more choices you have in food, the more labor it takes. . . . For the middle school especially, it’s important to have that mid-morning break to keep up with their energy.”
Last year, that meant maybe serving foods that weren’t the best overall but that met the previous nutrient requirements, she said.
“In the past, the way a lot of the products that we sell a la carte to get the kids to eat, the way they were counted was based on the nutrient profile. You could have fruit gummies with no fat and a certain number of calories and if they added vitamin C to it, it met the requirements. . . . This year, we’ll offer fewer snack foods and more real foods,” she said.
‘We want the kids to like it’
Pembroke students don’t have many other choices for lunch, since their lunch period is too short to accommodate trips to fast food restaurants in Concord.
But “we want the kids to like it,” said Robin Broadbent, the manager of the kitchen at Three Rivers School. “We want to meet the regulations, but we need the kids to like it.”
Over the past few years, as the regulations have tightened, they’ve swapped out some student favorites for meals that meet the new standards.
“We’re equipped. We’re ready. There’s just some things that are annoying, like them selling cereals that aren’t worth two whole grains,” she said, pointing at a table of name brand cereal packages at the vendor show.
But halfway up the third aisle for the second time that day, Nault let out a little gasp, and grabbed the arm of her fellow hunters.
“Look, it’s two grains,” she said, pointing and tapping repeatedly on the nutritional information panel on the back of the cereal box. “This is why I always want to go down every aisle twice. I must have walked right by this before.”
She took some information from the sales representative for the cereal company – who kept trying to tempt the group with a sample of Blueberry Muffin Top Crunch cereal. (Ever had one of those mini blueberry muffins that come in bags of six? Imagine a cross between that and Cinnamon Toast Crunch – and double the sweetness. It did not make the cut for the Pembroke team’s shopping list. The whole-grain Toasty Os did.)
Before finding the cereal with two servings of whole grains, Nault lamented the idea she’d have to give her students at Pembroke Academy a slice of toast to go with their cereal and milk. It just wouldn’t excite them. Having one big bowl of cereal would.
Other products at the conference – packaged french toast, cinnamon buns and muffins – had whole grain, but were too expensive for the Pembroke team’s budget.
With a little sigh of relief, Nault and her partners could relax after spending several hours tirelessly sampling pizza, chicken nuggets, fish sticks and more.
It was hard work, they said with a smile, but someone had to do it.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)