No fewer than 1,000 fruit and vegetable salads are being assembled in the central kitchen of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District on a recent morning.
The color blast is spectacular -- rows of strawberries and pineapple slices next to bins of leafy greens. What's missing are the crackle of a deep fryer and whir of industrial mixers – once standard background noise in school kitchens.
And it is by design. Beginning this fall, schools are subject to new federal guidelines that require them to go beyond serving more healthful lunches and also improve the nutritional content of the many food offerings that are not a part of the official school lunch.
The new guidelines, dubbed the Smart Snacks in Schools initiative, regulate food sold in school vending machines, from food carts, in fundraisers, and as a la carte items in cafeterias. Health advocates say this next level of regulation is crucial because it focuses on the so-called "competitive foods" that can undermine ongoing efforts to make school foods more nutritious.
“These foods compete with the school meal,” said Dareen Abdrabou, a program coordinator in nutrition and obesity prevention at the Orange County Department of Education. “Kids were getting mixed messages, so we’re trying to decrease access to unhealthy foods.”
In addition to the Smart Snacks rules, further tightening of complex lunch requirements on sodium, whole-grain content and in other areas are being implemented this fall.
The new guidelines are no simple matter, requiring hours of recipe searches, nutritional analysis and product evaluation. In addition to their complexity, food regulations can be costly to implement. And the recipients of all this sweat and sacrifice are hard-to-please (and not always appreciative) young eaters.
The result is a higher burden on cafeteria staffs.
“District food service staffs are working to do more with less, exhausting every hour of their work day,” Abdrabou said. “But there is also a sense of excitement to implement this.”
Local nutrition service directors say they long ago removed soft drinks and in many cases fried chip products from campus stores and vending machines, replacing them with baked chip alternatives as well as nuts and granola bars. But now they are finding the need to go further.
“Smart Snacks will dramatically affect our district,” said Jill Hartstein, nutrition services director of the Irvine Unified School District. “Our state regulations changed a la carte snacks over five years ago, but these [federal rules] are even stricter.”
For this school year, Hartstein has had to make countless decisions about individual products.
“At middle school we used to sell smaller Gatorade -- no longer," she said. "At the high school we will sell the Gatorade G2 product, which is lower in sugar.” But, she added, then a new conundrum arises: “You’ve got the ethical thing of do we want to introduce an artificial sugar to our kids?”
Another challenge for food service directors will be persuading student and parent groups selling treats in fund-raising activities to comply with the stricter guidelines on snacks.
In Newport-Mesa, Nutrition Services Director Dale Ellis has begun talking to student and parent groups about complying with nutritional mandates in their fundraising efforts without school officials having to play the role of "food police."
“I’ve had some conversations," Ellis said. "I understand the need to make money,”
Two Square Meals
In addition to changes in snack offerings, more stringent lunch and breakfast regulations also are taking effect this fall. For example, kids who eat breakfast at school must take a fruit serving, even if they don’t intend to eat it.
This rule is an extension of a previous requirement that students place a fruit or vegetable serving on their trays at lunch whether they expect to eat it or not. The thinking is that kids need numerous exposures to a new fruit or vegetable before they will try it.
Other regulations have forced food planners to reduce sodium and use whole-grain products in all pizza, pasta and rice dishes.
Brown rice in Mexican dishes remains a hard sell, according to food service directors, though Santa Ana has developed a lime and cilantro brown rice that is promising, said Jamie Sanchez, nutrition manager in the Santa Ana Unified School District.
Brand-name vendors that sell their products on school campuses, are also subject to food the regulations.
As result, Irvine had to stop selling chicken from one chain this year because they brine it in pickle juice that is high in sodium.
Pizza franchises, though, have been able to adapt their products to school rules by making crust from whole grains and using low-sodium cheese and pepperoni. And snack chip manufacturers have lowered their calorie content and reduced portions – even the baked chips.
A More Expensive Free Lunch
One perhaps not-so-obvious implication of the new regulations is their effect on school district budgets.
Federal government reimbursement for students receiving free or reduced lunches does not cover the cost of the entire lunch, and new requirements on grain and sodium may add to expenses. Fruits and vegetables that students are required to put on their trays raise costs and can easily end up in the trash.
Some food service directors fear loss of the revenues derived from snacks, though one study in the Journal of School Heath found no adverse effect of healthy food policies on food service finances.
Officials in school districts with a mix of paying students and those receiving free or reduced lunch said it’s important that paying students purchase the more healthful food.
“We need participation to support our program,” said Ellis of Newport-Mesa. “We need to keep some level of revenues. Our goal is to break even. We don’t profit.”
This reality has forced officials to develop strategies to get students to eat nutritional offerings.
Kids in some districts will eat fruits and vegetables if they can sprinkle them with Tajin, a chili-lime flavoring. And kids like carrots when they can dip them in ranch dressing.
Teresa Squibb, director of Nutrition Services in Tustin Unified School District, is trying out low-cost marketing techniques such as presenting fruit attractively, using a tablecloth and reworking the dining area to make the lines move faster and the dining experience more pleasant generally.
Tustin and other districts have trained lunchroom servers and cashiers to be friendly and promote the nutritional offerings.
“We do have lunch ladies, but we hope they’re not grouchy,” Squibb said.
In Santa Ana, the food services staff seek student buy-in to new foods with high-profile taste tests called Voice Your Choice. Last year, an award-winning recipe by group of student chefs from Valley High School in Santa Ana made it onto the school menu.
But kids remain unpredictable and finicky, as a recent interview with students at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine demonstrated.
When asked about school lunches, some said they were not healthy enough while others lamented the vegetables being too warm or the smoothies being too small. Almost all said that the entrees provided by Pick Up Stix were their favorite.
Outside of lunch, kids seemed open to combining the need for nutrition with the craving for crunch.
One 13-year-old noted this year’s addition of white cheddar popcorn as a snack. It’s a mere 70 calories, he said appreciatively, “so it’s pretty healthy.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article did not include the full name and title of Jamie Sanchez, the nutrition manager of the Santa Ana Unified School District. We regret the error.
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the University of California, Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org