LUTCHER — Healthier foods, smaller portions and fewer french fries already have lightened St. James Parish school cafeteria menus this year as a result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture directive to reduce childhood obesity.
School nutrition officials informed the St. James Parish School Board on Tuesday of the new federal food requirements.
“This is a big change for the school lunch program,” said Vivian Landry, a food services consultant hired by the school district. “We’re not going to be able to offer the students some of their favorite vegetables that they like to have every day, like french fries.”
As part of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program, schools now must offer five components, or servings, of meat or a meat alternative, milk, grains or breads, vegetables and fruits, Landry said.
That’s an increase from last year, when the fruits and vegetables components were combined and schools were required to offer only four components, Landry said. Students must take three of the five components offered for the district to receive federal reimbursement for the meal, she said.
And for the first time, the USDA is identifying sub-groups of vegetables and their required serving sizes, Landry said.
For instance, dark green vegetables, such as broccoli and turnip greens, and red-orange vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and sweet potatoes will be served more frequently than starches such as french fries, corn and potatoes.
Those starchy favorites will be limited to just a half cup per week, Landry said.
“Childhood obesity is an epidemic,” Landry said. “We have to be a big part of resolving that problem by introducing and educating the children to a healthier diet of more fruits and vegetables. We’re hopeful they will come alongside us and grasp this.”
Audience and board members groaned when Landry mentioned another school menu change this year: the switch to skim milk from 2 percent milk.
“That’s been another adjustment,” Landry acknowledged, adding it has been difficult to prepare menus acceptable to the students while meeting the new federal requirements and keeping costs down.
“It’s going to be an educational process getting the children to understand this is what we’re mandated to offer them,” she said.
Students will see another change in the cafeteria this fall.
The school district is implementing a biometric finger scanning system in all six parish elementary schools to manage the students’ meal plans, said Gaynell Albert, administrative director of student services.
The technology does not use the entire fingerprint nor does it store the image of the print, according to a letter going out this week to parents. The technology uses “finger imaging” to create a template of numbers corresponding with four points, including the swirls, arches and ridges, on the child’s finger, the letter said.
Each scanning unit costs $350 and each elementary school will have at least one, depending on how many lunch lines each school’s cafeteria has, said Robert Logan, the district’s director of technology.
The biometric finger scanning technology will speed up the lunch line process, St. James Parish Superintendent Alonzo Luce said.
The new system is not mandatory and parents may opt their children out, Albert said.