After the day’s meals are done on a recent Tuesday, Gilbert Community Schools director of food service Deb Purcell shuffles through a stack of papers. Gilbert, a town north of Ames in central Iowa, serves about 1400-1600 meals a day.
“This is what I do, planning for a week,” Purcell says pointing to columns on a page. “And there's actually seven pages minimum that go with each day.”
She’s counting cups of vegetables and documenting other details about every meal she’s served to comply with stringent federal rules. Her job could soon get easier.
The Trump administration has been loosening some of the regulations. It canceled planned sodium reductions and allowed low-fat flavored milk last year. One of the current proposals would ease the rules for meat and meat alternatives at breakfast and the types of vegetables required at lunch.
Some call the changes rollbacks and others say they will give schools more flexibility.
In 2012, new rules for school lunches that Congress passed in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect, layering more details on the requirements for daily breakfasts and lunches.
Pushback began almost immediately, with complaints ranging from the cost and availability of whole grains to some older, active students needing more calories than the amount permitted under a new cap.
Purcell doesn’t love the paperwork, but she understands the motives behind most of the rules in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“I think the intention was good,” she says. But in the application, things got a little wonky.
She says at breakfast, but not lunch, a sausage patty counts as a grain. So does the egg in a sausage-egg sandwich. Not only is that illogical, she says, but it also contradicts what the children are taught in health class.
“I'm going to go back to: a sausage is not a piece of bread,” she says. She supports the proposed changes that would allow her to count meat as, well, meat, at breakfast. The proposed rule could also loosen some of the whole grain requirements, which critics fear would reduce the nutritional goals of the law. But Purcell says that’s not a worry in Gilbert.
“What we've decided to do is to stay with the whole grain,” she says. “Our students like it. We've got whole grain cookies that are really just very yummy.”
Gilbert is a district where only about 10 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and Purcell says the district is committed to nutritious ones. So even if, for example, a rules change meant a cheaper but less nutritious ingredient could be swapped onto the menu, she’s not worried there would be any pressure on her to do that.
“We aren't going to take a short cut,” she says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school meals programs and is responsible for the rules, has found the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has resulted in healthier meals for students.
Iowa State University nutrition professor Ruth Litchfield says alarming childhood obesity rates drove some of the changes.Those rates have plateaued for most kids and even decreased for some groups since menus were revised.
“We really believe that it has had some impact, it has not been the sole thing at the front of this change occurring,” she says.
But she adds the more nutritious meals are also popular—more students are buying them and they’re throwing away less food. Now Litchfield’s concerned that further loosening the requirements could have some unintended consequences. For some students, school meals make up most of their daily nutrition, but they’re also a chance for kids to try new foods.
Litchfield says if the requirements to include red-orange, leafy green and starchy vegetables go away, that opportunity may be lost.
“If they're not going to get it at the school program... they may not ever see some of these fruits and vegetables that are out there,” she says.
At Wright Elementary in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, all of the students can eat breakfast or lunch at no cost to their families thanks to a federal grant. Without that, about 75 percent of the students would qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
On a recent day, students choose chicken alfredo over noodles, grilled cheese or pizza from the hot line and then serve themselves applesauce, raw broccoli florets or hot mixed vegetables at the veggie cart. They can also try something new — the Flavor Bar.
A boy points to a tub of yellow strips and rings on the small table and says, “What’s that?” Dainese Pridegon tells him they are banana peppers, and another student pipes up, “They’re really good!”
Pridegon helps the students serve themselves peppers or sprinkle cinnamon on their applesauce. She’s part of Food Corps, a national service program that brings lessons on healthy eating to schools. It’s rolling out pilot Flavor Bars in 15 cafeterias to literally spice-up school meals.
Pridegon guides the students as they pour hot sauce onto their trays or shake chili powder over their pasta.
“I don’t want them to drench their food in the flavor and not taste the food,” she says.
This is the first week of the Flavor Bar here, but Pridegon also set one up at another Cedar Rapids school.
“I remember someone wanted to put cinnamon on their mashed potatoes once and I try to, like, coach and encourage them not to do silly things but actually do things they’re going to want to eat.”
Students voted on toppings they wanted on the Flavor Bar, and then it was up to Pridegon to figure out which ones would work within the rules for calories, sodium and so forth. Parmesan cheese and salt were non-starters.
“We definitely had to make sure that all of our flavors would keep us within our limits and not take us over,” she says.
So far, the Flavor Bar seems to be a hit. Students dip broccoli and bread sticks in hot sauce, and Pridegon isn’t sure she ordered enough banana peppers to get through the week.
But her calculations should hold up and keep the Flavor Bar within the rules, even if the proposed changes go through.
What’s not currently on the table as a rules change is anything that would allow Gilbert’s food service manager Deb Purcell to put her dream item on the menu.
“What I would really like to do is one very rich dessert once a week. Just because the kiddos love it, or would love it,” she says.
Even without that, she’d welcome a little more flexibility as she continues to offer the students healthy foods she hopes they’ll enjoy.
The comment period on the current proposed changes to school meals closes March 23.
Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes