COLUMBIA — The approval of proposed federal guidelines to improve nutrition in school meals wouldn't be much of a surprise for Columbia Public Schools.
“We’ve been ready for a while,” Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools, said.
The U.S. Agriculture Department published a proposal Thursday to update nutrition standards for school meals subsidized by the federal government. The proposed changes would require schools to add more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk and to reduce saturated and trans fats, sodium and calories.
“A lot of these things we’re already doing,” Fullum said.
Throughout the past year Fullum, who is also a registered and licensed dietitian, said the city's school system has implemented pilot programs that address the lack of nutritional options in areas that needed more attention.
While some of the proposed nutrition standards pose challenges to the Columbia school system, a number are already in place.
According to the proposal, these standards include:
For breakfast, the USDA recommends minimum and maximum calorie levels for school meals based on age group: grades K to 5, 350 to 500 calories; grades 6 to 8, 400 to 550 calories; and grades 9 to 12, 450 to 600 calories.
For lunch, the USDA recommends: grades K to 5, 550 to 650 calories; grades 6 to 8, 600 to 700 calories; and grades 9 to 12, 750 to 850 calories.
"This is something we've already had under control," Fullum said. Reduction in calorie intake is managed through the serving sizes in meals, she said.
The number of calories in food can be monitored by checking the labels of every food item they purchase, Fullum said. In addition, a list of nutritional labels offered through the Columbia Public Schools website shows the ingredients of foods offered.
Gradual reductions in sodium
During a 10-year period, the new rule would require schools to reduce the amount of sodium in school meals by approximately 25 to 50 percent.
Fullum said the school system's strategy to lower sodium and maximize nutritious content is to keepcooking simple. This can be accomplished by cooking from scratch, she said.
Eliminate trans fats
This proposed rule would require schools to minimize trans fats in school meals to zero grams of trans fat per serving (zero is defined by the FDA as less than 0.5 grams per serving).
Fullum said reaching this goal shouldn't be a problem because they're aware of this information from the nutritional labels they keep for the food they buy.
Increase servings of fruits and vegetables
This proposed rule calls on schools to require one cup of fruit for breakfast and a half cup to one cup of fruit and three-fourths to one cup of vegetables for lunch.
"We offer fresh fruits and vegetables at all meals," Fullum said. "When they are required to be on a tray, that's when the cost issue may come in."
Limit milk to fat-free and low-fat and flavored milk to fat-free
"We don't serve anything but skim milk or one percent," Fullum said.
Increase amount of whole grains
The proposed rule would require that eventually most grains be whole grains.
"That's going to be a challenge for us," Fullum said. Whole grains cost a lot depending on the food, she said. However, the schools have been introducing whole grain into meals through foods such as whole grain rice and oatmeal, she said.
Require schools to serve a grain and a protein for breakfast meals
Breakfast is a struggle now for Columbia Public Schools, Fullum said. One reason is the short turnaround time cooks have between breakfast and lunch. In addition, introducing new foods into breakfast will cost more.
The cost to abide by the new rules is a concern for Columbia Public Schools, Fullum said.
To offset some of the costs, Columbia Public Schools wants to regionalize where the foods are prepared. Cooking would be concentrated in only a few schools, then the food would be distributed to the rest of the schools, she said.
Consolidating the cooking sites would also cut back on waste and increase efficiency, Fullum said.
Fullum said she thinks the students' reaction to the potential change in foods is a "mixed bag."
With some students' already eating more healthily at home, Fullum said teachers' acting as role models would be "a huge part in marketing this to children."
She said the school system tries to reach out in several ways as well to encourage students to eat healthier.
"Our cafeterias are littered with nutrition information," Fullum said.
She said the schools also offer nutrition education classes and some have a fresh fruit and vegetable program that provides students with a healthy snack during the day.
"I think that our community is so ready to make these changes," she said, "because we have a very proactive and interactive community."