Big changes coming on Portland school menus

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PORTLAND — City schools are expected to be healthier places in September when new nutrition policies, approved by the School Board last month, take effect.

The new policies, some of which have been in development for five years, represent a change in the way schools around the country feed students and teach them about nutrition. While the changes may be drastic at some schools, they represent something the Portland Public Schools have been doing for several years.

“The nice thing for us is that our food service program has been doing the Healthier U.S. School Challenge for a few years now,” Chanda Turner, the department’s school health coordinator, said.

Last year, all eight of Portland’s elementary schools were recipients of the Bronze Award for the Healthier U.S. School Challenge, a division of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move programming encouraging kids to make healthy choices. With the new policies in place, the entire district is set to be the first in the state to achieve the gold standard.

To do so, according to Turner, all food served to students and staff during the school day must meet the minimum standards for both the Gold Award level of the Healthier Schools U.S. Challenge and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation beverage standards.

Several things must happen under the Healthier U.S. School Challenge: school lunches must meet minimum USDA nutrition standards and the school lunch menu must be tailored so that students and staff have a choice of different fruits, vegetables, whole grains, juices and milks every day of the week. Additionally, food and beverages must meet minimum requirements for total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, calories, sodium and sugar.

Similar regulations must be in place for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation beverage standards. The beverage standards were created to provide “developmentally appropriate” and balanced drinks  to support children’s nutritional and hydration needs. The guidelines limit portion sizes and reduce the number of calories children take in through drinks during the course of the day.

The new standards, Turner said, are a major shift because they do not just apply in the lunch room, they also govern food served outside the cafeteria.

“These new standards that apply in the lunch room, now have to apply throughout the school day and beyond the school day,” she said.

Policies do not apply to food that students and staff bring from home, nor do they apply to outside groups, such as sports boosters or to school events happening off school grounds. However, they do suggest new standards for food that should be served at outside events.

“Before and after the school day, including non-school days, we ask schools or school groups that are selling or providing the food to meet the standards,” Turner said.

Turner also said that there are allowed to be prepackaged foods and treats such as brownies, but they must to be balanced by healthier choices.

“For every plate of brownies, there needs to be a bowl of apples or something,” she continued. “You can have those treats, those sometimes foods, but for every sometimes food that you have you need to have a food that meets the minimum nutritional values (of the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge).”

Parents and students were involved throughout the five-year development process. Turner and her staff brought different options to advisory groups, PTO’s and PTA’s, promoting the changes. Some parents and students were all for the changes, but, Turner said, “change is hard,” and many parents were skeptical about the changes.

“We heard from a wide variety of people saying they want nothing to change and others saying they want more change, going so far as to say they want to regulate what kids are bring from home,” she said. “(What we found was) that these new standards represent the middle of the road. We heard from a lot of parents who think this goes too far and others who don’t think it has gone far enough.”

The biggest challenge in implementing these changes, according to Turner, is the competition for attention, not only for schools, but for parents.

“There are so many mandates on schools and school time and attention, and (also) on parents for their time and attention,” Turner said. “The challenge is rising above the noise to make people see that this is important.”

While the School Board has already approved the change in policy, the changes to the nutrition program will not be made overnight; they will be made over the summer.

“The understanding is that it’s very hard to flip a switch and make the change,” Turner said. “(In early May) it doesn’t make sense to change things that are already in place. (For now) we’re asking the school organizations to incorporate these policies as best as possible.”

At this point many end-of-the-year celebrations are already planned and catering is booked, but the hope is that, to the degree that it is feasible, they will follow the guidelines in place. Full implementation of the new policies is expected for all Portland public schools for the 2012-2013 school year.

“(We want) to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” she said. “It should be easy for people to choose to be healthy and to make healthy choices.”

Amber Cronin can be reached at or 781-3661 ext. 115. Follow her on Twitter: @croninamber.