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Thursday, March 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Changes to school meal standards could combat food waste but harm anti-obesity efforts, Spokane experts say

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 17, 2020

In this July 10, 2019 photo, 6-year-old elementary school students go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Kentucky. (Ellen O'Nan / AP)
In this July 10, 2019 photo, 6-year-old elementary school students go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Kentucky. (Ellen O'Nan / AP)

Doug Wardell, Spokane Public Schools nutrition services director, said changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday to the standards set for public school meals will still provide healthy options for children, with less waste.

Current standards require children to take a full cup of fruits or vegetables with each meal. The proposal only requires half a cup.

“If it reduces it, that would be great because the portions are large right now so that would give some flexibility,” Wardell said. “I’m not going to plan on modifying our meal pattern and our menu choices to a place where it’s just going to focus on just french fries. We’ve already got past that. I see us trying to make a commitment to more whole foods first.”

Wardell said the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which was supported by former first lady Michelle Obama, was well-intentioned and did a lot to promote healthy eating. But he also noted the program was not without its difficulties.

One unintended consequence, Wardell said, was food waste. And the changes put forth Friday target that waste.

According to the USDA’s proposal, “Some program operators also report challenges with food waste and report that children are throwing required vegetables in the trash.” The USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study estimated that 31% of vegetables served in schools are wasted.

But Natalie Tauzin, Spokane Regional Health food policy and nutrition advocate, said focusing on the price of food waste is shortsighted in comparison with the cost of obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity among children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 was 18.5% in 2015 and 2016.

“Fruit and vegetables are one of the most nutritious foods, if not arguably the most nutritious foods, and we see inequities based on income and the ability to access these foods,” Tauzin said.

Tauzin said the school guidelines helped to level the playing field for nutrition. She also said the changes come at a critical time, when benefits from the 8-year-old program should be coming to fruition.

For Spokane Public Schools, the food waste problem was more pronounced when the program started. But Wardell said the amount of waste has tapered off as students became more accustomed to the healthier options.

“Whole grains – a lot of kids didn’t like them at first,” Wardell said. “We have all (whole grain options) except for maybe one item, and I don’t think we should go backwards.”

Tauzin said that according to a food consumption study she conducted at the elementary level for Spokane Public Schools, the biggest cause of food waste was the abbreviated lunch period.

“Elementary school children are given a recess time, and so they have to divide the time between eating and recess,” Tauzin said. “Typically, they say it’s 15 or 20 minutes, but by the time they leave their classroom and actually get to sit down and start eating, it’s closer to a 10-minute lunch time.”

Tauzin said the study also showed less food waste when recess preceded lunch time.

“Food consumption overall – including fruit and vegetables – increases, because now kids have been out to play, they socialize, are hungry, they’re thirsty and they do a much better job when they come back into the cafeteria,” Tauzin said.

As a dietitian, Wardell thought the 2010 act’s decrease in sodium – which was a multistep program – was too extreme.

“It was almost to the level of a cardiac diet,” Wardell said. “So they were saying ‘OK, well, let’s just get it to a really low sodium level so that will prepare them to not like salt when someday they have to deal with hypertension,’ but only 20% of the population from my understanding struggles with hypertension.”

According to the CDC, 32% of U.S. adults have hypertension. The rate is 28% for Washington residents, according to a 2018 Washington State Health Assessment.

Wardell said the decrease in sodium resulted in less-flavorful foods.

“We’ve had struggles with taste,” Wardell said. “Kids don’t like the taste of the food anymore. … We have other ways to season food, and we’ve been able to come up with options, but I felt that the final level they were shooting for was a little more restrictive than was needed for the population.”

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