President Barack Obama may have signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act into law in 2010, but the act is not yet in full effect.
Beverly Lowry, director of child nutrition for the Starkville School District, said the legislation only entered its implementation phase this year. Training on the new regulations was not available until July, she said.
"It's come on so quickly, the industry has not had time to research and develop new products, so that's not only been very challenging for not only the industry but for us," Lowry said. "It has been a very hard process with not much time to be prepared before the beginning of school. Sometimes, if we have questions still, the answer will be, 'More guidance is to follow.'"
Changes are coming to the menus at Starkville and Oktibbeha County schools as officials work to comply with the new law, putting more vegetables and fruit on students' plates and more closely monitoring their protein, grains and calories.
Lowry said the Starkville School District and other Mississippi schools are ahead of the curve, thanks to the Mississippi Healthy Students Act the state legislature passed in 2007. For instance, she said, Mississippi already required half the grain in students' food to be whole grain, and the federal act carries the same requirement — in 2012-2013. Starting in 2013-2014, she said, all grains must be whole grains.
"There are a few things, like a whole grain saltine, that we're having a little trouble getting," Lowry said. "We have always had minimum bread requirements and minimum meat requirements, but now there is a cap on how much bread and how much meat (students can have) according to their age groups. Cheese now has to be counted towards the protein (along with meat), where in the past, it did not."
The bread cap includes breading on such fried foods as chicken tenders and fish filets, Lowry said, and this poses a challenge of a uniquely Southern sort. Starkville school cafeterias are reaching the bread limits faster than normal, she said.
"In the South, we eat turnip greens and corn bread," Lowry said. "In the North, they might eat the turnip greens and not the cornbread."
Darnell Boyd, food service director for the Oktibbeha County School District, said there are also calorie restrictions for each grade that present logistical issues at county high schools. She said the federal act sets calorie ranges for three groups of grades: Kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth grade through eighth grade and ninth grade through 12th grade.
Both OCSD high schools house students in grades 7-12 who don't always come to the cafeteria grouped together by grade, Boyd said, making it difficult to know what portion size to give each student. Fortunately, she said, both East Oktibbeha County High School and West Oktibbeha County High School are relatively small, so cafeteria personnel often know what grades students are in by memory.
"When you've got that (few) students, it's not hard to know them all," Boyd said. "They do it every day. It's a little challenging, but we're getting there."
Boyd said she anticipates difficulty with a sodium reduction the federal act stipulates for 2013-2014. The act also requires all flavored milk to be fat-free starting this year, something she said the county schools have never done before.
Lowry said children still have choices about their food, but the schools were formerly only required to offer children either a vegetable or fruit every day. Now, she said, they are required to offer both a vegetable and a fruit every day. Further, she said, each child must have either a fruit or a vegetable on his or her plate, or the school will not receive federal reimbursement for the meal.
"Not only are you giving them vegetables, you have to meet your subgroups for the week," Lowry said. "Vegetables are divided into subgroups ... You have your orange and red vegetable subgroup, your dark green (vegetables), your starches, your other (group) and your dried beans and legumes."
Even though just meeting the requirements for 2012-2013 is challenging, Lowry said she wants to meet as many 2013-2014 requirements as possible this year. The SSD was the first school district in the state to remove all its fryers and replace them with combination oven steamers, and she said she is determined to keep the SSD ahead of the curve.
"Right now, I'm just going to try to study the regulations, interpret them to the best of my ability and wait," Lowry said.