“We have low fixed budgets, and high expectations” under regulations issued in January 2012 that are being phased in to revamp what schools must serve children at each meal, said Melissa Honeywood, director of food and nutrition services at Cambridge Public Schools.
While “no one wants to serve terrible food to children,” schools’ financial realities and the new requirements under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act often are at odds, Honeywood told attendees Nov. 11 at The Whole Grains Council’s Oldways Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers conference in Boston.
“Our fixed income is $2.98 for every meal that is designated as free for a child [and reimbursed by the government], but that is not just used to pay for food,” Honeywood said. “That is for labor, staff benefits, equipment, plates and utensils, too. So, in the end, you have about $1.10 to spend on food.”
That means “you have to be really mindful of when you are serving an expensive whole grain in the middle of the week because the extra cost will offset a grain later in the week,” she said. Therefore, she noted, Cambridge schools only serve whole grains like quinoa and wheat berries “sparingly” even though she would like to serve them more often.
Educate staff about grain preparation
Another barrier to serving more exotic whole grains is school staff may not be familiar with them or know how to prepare them, Honeywood said.
One way pasta-manufacturer Barilla is helping schools work around this obstacle is by having its experts visit schools to show staff how to cook whole grains with the equipment they have available, said Anna Rosales a registered dietitian and the nutrition manager at Barilla. She spoke during a different session at the conference but recognized the need for more education about whole grains.
The firm also includes directions on food packaging for a wide variety of cooking methods so school staff know how to prepare the food with the equipment they have, Rosales said.
She explained the equipment and cooking capabilities vary greatly between schools – with some having modern appliances in a full kitchen and others having only microwaves in converted closets – and if the preparation directions on food packaging involves equipment that is not available to a school, it likely will not buy it.
Barilla also helps offset the cost of whole grains through its Cool School Café program, which allows schools to earn points for purchasing Barilla products that they can exchange for new equipment or other things they need, Rosales said.
Even if staff knows how to prepare whole grains, students might not eat them if they are unfamiliar.
“We offer whole grains like quinoa, but other [more exotic grains] we don’t introduce, even though we are open to it,” unless we know students will eat them, said Samantha Weiss, a registered dietitian and supervisor of menu planning and special diets with Boston Public Schools.
“We don’t want them to wind up in the trash” because students do not want to try something they have never seen before,she explained.
Food manufacturers can help by creating educational materials for the school or larger community “to make sure students see [the grains] at home or when they go out to eat,” she said, adding as much as she would like to expose children to new foods “we can’t work it into our plates every day until the public does and kids are more used to it.”
Honeywood agreed noting: “Perception-wise, what would make my life easier is if healthy foods were the expectation outside of school, too. For my kids to be served exclusively whole grain pasta at school and the go to the bodega in their neighborhood and find only refined grains [is difficult] because there is no reinforcement” of the lessons they are learning at school.
“We don’t have these standards for children because we think it just better for them,” she said. “It is better for all of us and we need healthy adults who mirror the values we are trying to instill in our youth.”
Food manufacturers can also help overcome this barrier by working with schools to test menus with students or by providing small samples so the school can assess children’s reaction before investing limited funds in a new food, Coleen Donnelly, corporate chef, K-12 segment at InHarvest said at the conference.
Help with the paperwork
Finally, food manufacturers can help ease schools’ burden to incorporate whole grains by providing food service directors with clear formulations statements about the foods, Weiss said.
She noted that figuring out how many servings of whole grains different foods qualify for under the school food regulations is difficult and time consuming. She often emails back and forth several times with food providers when creating her menus to ensure that if she provides a food it meets the standards.
“If you provide us with this information it makes our job a lot easier,” and we then have more time to explore new foods and other ways to educate students about whole grains and healthy eating, she said.