Columbia County students purchasing lunches at school this year might be unaware of changes made to the meal program.
It is more noticeable for Jane Wiggins, the school system’s nutrition services director.
Starting this school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed the number of grain-rich foods required for pupils based on elementary, middle and high school age groups.
“We can’t serve a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day in the elementary school,” Wiggins said. “We only have sandwiches like three days a week now.”
Because the maximum grain number is higher for older pupils, those limitations don’t apply to upper grade levels.
“In the middle and high schools, you can (still) have a sandwich every single day,” Wiggins said.
Staples such as bread, buns, pizza crust, breadsticks and rice must now consist of at least 50 percent whole grains, she said.
The new meal requirements are of part of the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act, advocated by First Lady Michelle Obama and signed into law in December 2010 by President Obama.
Details of the new USDA guidelines, designed to provide healthier meal plans for pupils, weren’t finalized until 2012.
“It wasn’t until spring that we really knew what was coming up for this school year,” Wiggins said.
The plan will be phased into school systems across the country over a three-year span.
As of this year, schools can offer only low-fat or fat-free milk products.
The standards also ensure that pupils are offered daily fruit and vegetable servings as well as limiting the amount of calories per age group.
As a result, Wiggins said there could food costs could increase, paid for through the county School Nutrition Program. The program, separate from the school system’s general fund, receives federal funding and earns revenue from pupils and faculty buying school food.
The plan also focuses on reducing saturated fat, trans fat and sodium levels in school food.
Lunch meals are being addressed this year and breakfast requirements will be the focus of changes next school year.
In 2014, all breakfast items must contain whole grains.
Grits, a popular Southern dish, currently doesn’t fall under that category.
“We’re hoping by 2014 that someone will come out with some whole grain grits,” Wiggins said. “This is such a traditional, Southern breakfast item that I can’t believe that somebody is not going to come up with some.”
This is the first time in 15 years that the USDA has raised nutritional standards.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics for 2008, about 12.5 million children and adolescents in the United States between the ages of 2 and 19 were obese. Those statistics have almost tripled since 1980. Georgia ranks second in the country in childhood obesity.