New school nutrition rules costly for one metro school system
Change has come to Rockdale County. A year ago, the fast-growing 16,532-student school system lightened up its cafeteria menus, a la carte offerings and vending machines. This was all part of an effort to meet new U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition guidelines that went into effect during the 2014 school year.
Peggy Lawrence, Director of Nutrition for Rockdale Schools, says they tried to make the changes quietly. Lawrence says, "We've not made a big deal about it. We've kind of tried to fly below the radar, and not made a big deal about it."
The big changes? Schools are offering more whole grains and fresh foods like fruit and vegetables and less sugar, fat and salt. Lawrence says the changes are a work in progress, as schools try to figure out what students want. She says they are, “Making judgment calls about what's going to work and what's not going to work, adjusting. Seeing what the kid will spend their money on."
Twelve months later, Lawrence says meal sales are steady, but revenue from discretionary items - the things kids *choose* to buy - is way down. She says "For us, we lost about $11,000 a month, during the school year, so that's pretty significant."
They’ve taken a major hit in a la carte sales. Lawrence says, "If I am a child and I have that extra dollar in my pocket our extra money in my meal account, I'm going to make a decision about that. And that's where you hurting right now. That's where we're hurting."
Take, for example, the biscuits. They were tweaked to mix in more whole grains. But that made the biscuits brown. Lawrence says, "It's always interesting to me what kids notice and don't notice. The biscuits, they noticed significantly. Did they stop eating breakfast, no. But did they stop eating biscuits for breakfast? In a lot of cases, yes."
Under the new federal guidelines, school vending machine foods have to be 200 calories or less. Even PopTarts. Lawrence says, “These are formulated specifically for schools. There's one in a package. They're whole grain." When they rolled out the newer, lighter PopTarts, she says, "We had little comment cards and one of the students at the elementary school wrote us a comment and said, 'You should buy the ones my my buys at Kroger. They have two in the package!'
Lawrence says she gets the get-healthier message. She says, “As a mom, as a school nutrition director, I would say, ‘Yes, I applaud the effort.’ As a businessperson, it's concerning."