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Push is on to serve healthier meals in public schools

Students will have healthier options for school breakfasts and lunches through a national push aimed at addressing childhood obesity, school and federal officials said this week.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day. In St. Mary's County, existing school policy already addresses nutritional standards, but a revision is under way to meet the new standards.

The law, which was signed into effect in December, will improve nutrition and focuses on reducing childhood obesity, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said during a visit earlier this week to the cafeteria of George Washington Carver Elementary School.

School districts will be audited every three years to improve compliance with nutritional standards.

The act also requires schools to make information more readily available to parents about the nutritional quality of meals. St. Mary's already posts nutrition information on the school system's website for all foods served.

There are four public schools in the county that have more than 50 percent of students whose family income makes them eligible for free and reduced price meals; Carver Elementary School — almost 76 percent — has the highest number of eligible students.

The new guidelines come with a 6 cent per meal increase in the federal reimbursement rate for meals served to students in the free and reduced-price meals program. This is the first increase in three decades, Hoyer said.

The federal reimbursement rate currently is $2.92 per meal, including money for commodity entitlement.

When asked how Congress intends to fund the increase at a time when more children are opting into the free or reduced-priced meals program, Hoyer said "resources are limited," but that his colleagues are committed to the increase.

"There is such a relationship between nutrition and learning," Hoyer said.

Mike Jones, supervisor of food and nutrition services for St. Mary's public schools, said the school system's cafeterias have been preparing for the changes and he is looking forward to serving even healthier meals to students. There will be more fruit and vegetable options, he said, although that and other requirements could cost as much as 50 to 60 cents more per meal.

The current cost to produce a meal in St. Mary's public schools is about $2.75. "It depends on what school you talk to" as to whether the guidelines will cost schools more, Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture for the USDA, said during the visit Tuesday to Carver. Some already meet the standards on the current reimbursements rates, so the money would come as extra, she said.

Other schools would need to change the food they serve, which could cost more than currently, she said. The costs associated could also mean upgrades to cooking and food storage facilities and finding ways to help children make better food choices, including doing away with vending machines in schools, Merrigan said.

She highlighted the recommendations to drastically cut sodium intake. She said many people should cutback their sodium intake (primarily supplied through salt) by one-half. "We have to empower people to make good choices" when it comes to eating, Merrigan said.

St. Mary's public schools have ramped up school breakfast programs in recent years, and now serve 3,500 meals every day. Breakfasts are available at every school, and half of those meals are served in classrooms at six schools to every student, every day free of charge through the Maryland Meals for Achievement program.

Merrigan said Maryland does better than many states in terms of serving meals, especially breakfasts. She also said the state's Farm-to-School program, which brings farmers to school sites to talk about where food comes from, is successful.

The local Maryland Cooperative Extension office helps organize farmer visits at several schools a year in St. Mary's County. St. Mary's will host the state's kickoff event for this program this spring.

St. Mary's will begin piloting a program in March to serve after-school meals at Carver.

"We're going to call it an expanded snack," Jones said. Students in after-school programs will be served free milk along with four other items from a varied menu, he said.