WESTCHESTER, N.Y. -- Students in Westchester will notice some healthier options in the cafeteria when they return to school this week.
School meals across the country are getting a makeover, as required by the United States Department of Agriculture.
“This year, the most obvious changes will be that one of the three food components that the students choose must be a fruit or vegetable," explained Jo-Anne Ricapito, Lakeland Central School District director of food and nutrition.
Other new federal requirements include banning anything more than one percent milk and all flavored milk, including chocolate milk, must be fat-free. In addition, schools that do not have a water fountain in the cafeteria must provide water with cups. Use of starches in school lunches is also being cut back significantly.
“Now there’s a maximum of nine servings of breads and grains at the elementary school level and 10 at the middle school level,” Ricapito said. “That’s a real challenge.”
The new meal requirements, which were first announced in January, will raise nutritional standards for the first time in more than 15 years and are intended to improve the health and nutrition of the nearly 32 million children who participate in school meal programs.
The requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the First Lady Michelle Obama part of her Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law by her husband, President Barack Obama.
Many area schools have already taken measures to make school meals healthier. Yorktown Central School District Assistant Superintendent for Business Tom Cole told parents in a letter last month that the district has already made big changes to lunches in recent years.
For example, he said, recipes are continuously revised to include a variety of whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetable and minimally processed meat and poultry. The district also provides daily salad offerings in all schools, hormone and antibiotic-free milk, no high fructose corn syrup, MSG, or partially hydrogenated oils and regular student involvement through focus groups and food tastings.
School meals are often handled by outside food service groups but district staff members still play an important role, as is the case in the Peekskill City School District.
Peekskill Schools spokesperson Anita Prentice said the district’s food is handled by the food services group Whitson’s, but district staff is always reviewing its meal offerings. The district is spending almost $2 million on upgrades and renovations to the kitchen and cafeteria of Peekskill High School for the fall.
“We have a wellness committee made up of parents, school board members and parent-teacher organization members,” Prentice said. “They work with Whitson’s to review the menu and if there are complaints from parents or students, they are the ones who would review them.”