A program that grew up with the Baby Boomers -- the National School Lunch Program -- turned 50 this year, and it's getting a face-lift.
As of July 1, federal rules require that school lunches conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines. That means school meals will be based on the new food pyramid, with its emphasis on grains and legumes and fruits and vegetables, and de-emphasis on dairy products and meat.
"It's the biggest change in the national school lunch and breakfast program since it began," said Linda Miller, who oversees nutrition programs for the Maryland State Department of Education. "For the first time, the emphasis is on it being a nutrition program, rather than a feeding program."
For the first time, the school programs have nutrient standards that set out the amount of calories, fat, protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C.
For instance, for lunch for children ages 7 to 10, the program, called NuMenus, mandates 667 calories, with 22 grams of fat (no more than 7 saturated fat), 9.3 grams of protein, 267 milligrams of calcium, 2.5 milligrams of iron, 233 units of vitamin A and 14.6 milligrams of vitamin C. The percentages can change on a given day; the goal is to provide nutrition balanced over a week.
The program began in 1946 after military officials noticed that some World War II recruits were undernourished. The goal was to make sure American children got at least one good meal a day, and the program relied heavily on government commodities, such as milk and other dairy products.
In the new program, Miller said, milk and cheese -- along with those kid favorites pizza and spaghetti -- will be allowed, supplemented with more fruits and vegetables. The goal is to balance the diet over the course of a week, as long as the calories from fat average 30 percent and other nutrient needs are met.
Although it's a big change in direction on a national basis, Miller said, the lunch program in Maryland has been moving toward meeting the USDA guidelines for some time. The state has had voluntary standards for three years.
When the state Department of Education began studying the lunch program several years ago, it hired a consultant to do nothing but nutritional analyses. The general perception, Miller said, was that school lunches were too high in fat. The consultant studied 18 (out of 24) school system menus and found that "most of them were pretty much on target" as far as fat was concerned, Smith said, with a range of 33 to 34 percent calories from fat.
"So a lot of changes involved adding fruits and vegetables and grains," she said.
Under the federal rules, schools have a choice of four ways to follow the nutrition mandates. They can analyze their own lunches and devise their own programs, as long as they meet the nutrient standards (Baltimore County and Baltimore City do this); they can buy a menu program from an approved outside source; they can continue an existing program but add more grains, fruits and vegetables (the state would analyze the meals and determine whether they met the nutrient standards); or they can use the same program they used last year if they were already meeting the nutrient standards. They also have two years -- until 1998 -- to implement the standards.
What it means is that children will be getting more choices. There are always three entrees a day in elementary schools, as many as eight in secondary schools -- where formerly there might have been one, take it or leave it. Some of the choices will be lasagna, grilled chicken on a whole-grain bun, and marinated black bean salad. Children are also going to be getting some new foods, such as kiwi and bulgur.
"Kids are much more sophisticated" these days, Smith said. They eat out more and they are exposed to more kinds of foods, including popular ethnic foods. And offering them a number of choices is a good way to give them a little power, she said.
At Cedarmere Elementary School in Baltimore County last week, a couple of days into the school year, students were still learning their way around the cafeteria, learning the rules. Many of the children use debit cards; parents deposit certain amounts of money into the child's account, and the child then uses the card to buy what he or she wants.
"Parents can fill out a form that says how they want the money spent," said Cathy Haymaker, a product and marketing specialist with the Baltimore County schools. Information on children's purchases goes into a computer; parents who want to know what their child bought on a given day can call and ask.
At 11: 15, a class of third-graders filed into the cafeteria, a large and fairly cheerful room with round tables, and plopped their lunch boxes on the table, or lined up for the cafeteria line. The entree choices were spaghetti (by far the most popular), a hamburger, or a salad with cheese. Vegetable choices were broccoli or coleslaw, and the fruit choices were oranges, apples or fruit cocktail.