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Big changes this year for school lunches
Students expected to eat less, healthier meals
Earnestine Williams, far right, serves up some lasagna to Statesboro High students during lunch Friday. Local schools are implementing new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for lunch menus. Some students say they understand the importance of nutritional education, but believe the new school lunch menus are more about compliance than about students' needs. Principal Marty Waters said some details in the guidelines will still need to be worked out, but that students being exposed to healthy food every day may change their perceptions and cultural preferences over time. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Large portions, sugary desserts and beloved fried chicken are no more for Bulloch County students.
For the first time in 15 years, the United States is implementing sweeping changes to nutrition mandates that determine what, and how much, students are served.
Long gone are the days of whole milk, fried chicken and all-you-can-eat starches. This year, students will grow accustomed to healthy, baked choices, more fruits and vegetables, and foods rich in whole grain.
The new regulations are part the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s mandate from Congress and the White House to beef up nutrition standards for school lunches.
Mandates are part of the child nutrition bill passed in December 2010 and pushed heavily by first lady Michelle Obama.
Changes required by the new standards include: increasing offerings of whole-grain food, limiting desserts — removing staples such as cookies and brownies from the menu — and phasing out all fried foods.
Schools are now required to reduce portion sizes, meet weekly calorie limits, provide only low-fat milk choices and limit the amount of sodium in meals.
Bulloch County Schools Nutrition Director Megan Blanchard said the diet overhaul will have a limited impact on the district’s schools, which were already in compliance with many of the new guidelines.
“We have always offered a cup of fruits and vegetables to students and we have not served anything but low-fat and fat-free milk for years,” Blanchard said.
Also, “in a 2007 review with the state department, we calculated calorie ranges that would fit in today’s guidelines,” she said.
Still, students will have a few adjustments to make.
“Including more whole-grain-rich foods, smaller portions and eliminating fried foods are the main differences in lunch menus,” Blanchard said. “The portion sizes have probably been the biggest challenge for us here in Bulloch County. Our children are used to getting a little more meat and bread.
“Students were receiving 15 ounces of meat per week, and now we’re limited to 12 ounces,” she said.
School officials hope to offset the reduction in quantity with improved quality. Blanchard said she and cafeteria personnel are looking into new, healthy-but-tasty recipes as the school year continues.
“Our main thing is getting the quality better,” she said. In that vein, cafeterias replaced fried chicken with a new chicken teriyaki dish that, according to Blanchard, was well-received by middle and high school students. 
“We have heard a little bit of negative from students — mainly about portion sizes — but a lot of positive compliments as well,” she said.
The driving force in establishing new national standards is an increasing amount of health troubles for students.
According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia has the second-highest child obesity rate in the country, with more than 21 percent of children being overweight or obese.
Weight issues for children increase the likelihood for heart disease, type-2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and social discrimination.
“We want to develop good eating habits in our kids,” Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said. “The goal of our School Nutrition Program is to provide healthy, tasty, cost-affordable meals. We’d like to hear healthy food ideas from parents and students.”
Blanchard plans to survey parents and students this year for input about the changes, according to a news release issued by Bulloch County Schools. People also can offer input on the school district and school’s Facebook pages.
Future changes planned by the school system include: implementing new breakfast guidelines that will be released next year, cutting the sodium in meals by half during the next decade and partnering with the local farmers’ market to provide more fresh produce.

Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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