Orange County school kids who think they can avoid fruits or vegetables during their lunch breaks will find they have another think coming, as federal regulations to improve the quality of school lunches take effect this fall.

The new rules set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture increase servings of fruits and vegetables (one cup of each at the high school level) and require schools to make students place at least one of them on their tray rather than simply offering them.

A response to the nation’s youth obesity epidemic, the rules also call for a greater percentage of whole grains, low-fat milk, appropriate amounts of calories and down the road, lower sodium levels. In addition, cafeterias will have to serve food from different categories that include legumes, starches, dark-green vegetables and red or orange vegetables.

The new USDA rules are the biggest change in school lunches in 15 years. In its early days, the school lunch program was created to make sure that malnourished kids got enough calories, said Dareen Abdrabou, nutrition manager at the Orange County Department of Education. Now, she said, malnutrition comes in a new form — obesity.

While the new standard for nutrition in school lunches is good news, Abdrabou said, “it’s going to be a challenge for the food service staff.”

She said it will take more time and effort to provide additional servings and to confirm that students have them on their trays. And the federal reimbursement, which is available to schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, is not expected to fully cover the extra cost of meeting the new requirements, Abdrabou said.

Another concern is waste by finicky students.

Irvine eighth-grader Francisco Lazo was not optimistic about the new fruit and vegetable mandate. “You know what’s in the trash can in my school at lunch? Grapes, salad and apples,” he said.

But supporters say the new requirements could pay off substantially in the long run.

As Abdrabou explained: “The argument for making people take the fruits and vegetables is it takes 10 to 15 exposures for a kid to like a food. If we don’t say ‘try it, take it,’ they’re not going to get exposed and not going to create a preference for healthier food. The positive side is maybe the child throws away the vegetables three to five times but on the eleventh time he tries it and the twelfth time he’ll like it and create a preference.”


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