What's for Lunch? Part 1 - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

What's for Lunch? Part 1

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For some, the lunch menu is full of favorites at Champlain Elementary School in Burlington.

"Apples, mac and cheese and chi chi beans," student Paco Barcia said.

For others, it's hit or miss.

Reporter Keith McGilvery: Do you like the mac and cheese here?

Jasper Martinez/Student: Not really, only with ketchup. But today I just didn't really feel like it.

These second-graders say mastering the midday meal is all about knowing when to dig in and when to opt out.

"That would be the chicken teriyaki!" Barcia said. "It kind of looks greenish."

Doug Davis is the director of food service for the Burlington school district. He designs the daily menu for thousands of the city's school kids.

It's a job that's always come with critics, and it became more challenging this fall.

"The menus may not look any different, but the food that is being served truly is different," Davis said.

Schools across the country now have updated USDA guidelines dictating what makes it onto the tray. They're aimed at boosting child nutrition and tackling obesity.

"I'm a big fan of the new guidelines from the perspective of this allows us to put a healthier meal out for our children," Davis said.

The basic food groups remain the same.

"School meals consist of five components: a protein component, a grain component, a liquid milk component, and fruits and vegetables," Davis said.

But how it translates to what's on the tray has changed. Last year, kids were required to take foods that fit any three of those five groups. This year, one of those items must be a fruit or vegetable.

"Every child going through any school lunch line in Vermont must choose a fruit or vegetable with their lunch," Davis said.

And now not just any vegetable will do.

"Schools are now required, for example, to make sure we offer green, leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, beans and legumes," Davis explained.

Milk of all kinds was once allowed. Now, it must be fat-free or 1 percent. Old rules meant minimum servings of grains were required with no maximum. This year, it's capped at nine servings a week for kids in grades K-5.

"We cannot make a typical sandwich every day for a child in grades K-5 without exceeding the limit," Davis said.

Calories are being counted. Previous regulations meant totals for elementary school kids had a minimum ranging from about 600 to roughly 800 with no max. Now, lunch calories are capped at 650 through grade 5, but that excludes those from fruits and veggies.

We recently took our cameras into the Champlain Elementary kitchen to get a look at the changes.

"You guys are going to look at a meal today and it may or may not hit the actual target, but over the course of the week, the meal has to meet the target that has been asked for by USDA," Davis said.

Menu options during our visit included ratatouille, mac and cheese, turkey on wheat, kale chips, cooked squash, and a mix of raw fruits and vegetables.

The selection is getting high marks from Hunger Free Vermont's Child Nutrition Advocacy manager, Anore Horton.

"There's a variety of color and therefore a lot of nutrients in the fruit and vegetable offerings, so that is really great. We've got two different vegetable sub-groups on the tray," Horton said.

The district has been introducing healthier options on its own for years, but the new regulations are causing some confusion. Meat and protein once had a minimum of 10 ounces a week; now 10 ounces is the max, unless, of course, it comes from beans.

"You could be counting this vegetarian chili as a vegetable in which case you would have three vegetables on this tray, and fruit and your grain and your protein, or you could count this as your protein. So, a student would pick one or the other," Horton explained.

It's a complicated formula that's not a perfect science, and one that even the best eaters are finding ways to get around. Remember that required piece of fruit?

"To get passed, you have to have one fruit. You can pick a fruit that you don't really like because you can always put it on the share table," Martinez said.

The federal government is giving schools six cents a meal to implement the new changes. It's far shy of the roughly 40 cents divisions say they're costing. If districts don't comply, they'll be at risk of losing federal money many depend on to feed their kids.

Middle and high school students are allowed more on their plates and a larger number of calories. Click here for more on that.

Related Story:

What's for Lunch? Part 2

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