Did you eat your vegetables? Well, Belmont school children will, along with fruit, whole grains and whole wheat and less salt as the school district implements a state initiative to provide school children better meals, according the school's food guru.
Before the School Committee's Tuesday meeting, April 24, Paul Browne, director of Belmont Public School's Food Services, spoke on the new state regulatory requirements all schools will implement in September.
The new standards, bureaucratically titled "Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs," will, in short, will give students buying lunches, breakfasts at the High School or snacks "a lot of whole grains, whole wheat" more fruits and vegetables, said Browne.
While the upside is healthier and nutritious meals, the regulations will cost families more to purchase the same meals and items off the a la carte menu due to the greater variety of food. That added expenses will be passed on to students and parents as the food services is a self-sustaining department.
And in many ways, the new regulations is a return to what school kitchens were back in the lunches provided to students in the 1950s, said Browne.
"We are coming full circle where we are cooking from scratch and remove processed foods from the schools," he said.
But while many school districts will see major changes to their lunch and breakfast menus, Belmont – which has a 50 percent participation rate – has "been ahead of the curve" when it has come to supplying meals with higher nutritious values, said Browne. When he arrived seven years ago, the system had already substituted whole milk for skim milk.
Under the new standards, school lunches next school year will be made up of five components: a grain, a protein (that can be meat), dairy, fruit and vegetable.
"We are looking now at dark green and colored vegetables and fruits," said Browne, noting each lunch with have at lease half-a-cup of both.
The emphasis on fruits and veggies will certainly impact one of the most popular foods on menus, corn, which is now classified as a starch and will be seen less on food trays come September.
While any change to a program can be disruptive, Browne does not see Belmont students rebelling to the menu to be served since they have healthy eating habits. The salad bar is very popular in the High School and the yogurt tray in the elementary schools – made up of carrots, string cheese, pretzels, fruit and a yogurt snack – are steady sellers.
Browne also said the summer break will also help prepare students for the change. In addition, food services will attempt to be innovative with the menu. Brown points to the time it received a large quanity of sweet potatos.
"We roasted them and added a little seasoning," said Browne, who said it became a success because "it's orange."
Read the new state regulations in the pdf file on this web page.
The new standards will provide slightly less calories in each lunch menu. Today, a traditional lunch on a school menu goes from 633 calories for elementary students to 825 calories in High School. Now, calories should be between 550 to 650 calories in K-5th grade to 750 and 850 calories in High School.
The meals will also be less salty. Currently there is no targets on the level of sodium but beginning in the 2014-15 school year, lunches can not be more than 1,230 milligrams of sodium for K-4 to 1,420 mg in High School. In ten years, those salt levels will be halved, down to 640 mg for K-4 and 740 mg for high schoolers.
And as for fat, kids will see their milks fat-free for flavored varieties – including the all time favorite, chocolate – or 1 percent low fat for regular milk. If a Belmont student only wants milk to add to his brought home lunch, it will have to be white.
For the first time, state schools will go from no limits on trans fats to an absolute ban.
As part of the new regulations, Belmont schools, with help from the community group Sustainable Belmont, will take part in the Massachusetts Farm-to-School Project that brings produce from local farms into the school's lunch rooms. While the program has its downside – most of the school year, from late fall to early spring, is not in the growing season for local farms – a new distribution system with other schools including Weston will help with cost and availability.
And since the school system does not have a "beef heavy" menu and it purchases its own supplies, Belmont was not involved in the "pink slime" controversy where much of the beef distributed to the public and schools had additives with little nutritious value, said Browne.