Lower calorie counts, reduced sodium and saturated fats, and more fruits and vegetables are some of the changes Fairfax County Public Schools students will find when they return to school next month.
The system's changes to its school lunch program come with new federal nutrition standards being implemented this fall in schools across the country, the largest reform of national lunch and breakfast programs in 15 years.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, also includes changes to school breakfast programs during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Fairfax, part of the changes include an "All Star Lunch" program, designed by the system's Office of Food and Nutrition Services to teach elementary school students about the five components of a healthy lunch, as defined by the standards: protein, grains, milk, fruits and vegetables.
As they go through the lunch line at their schools, students who buy lunch will select three, four or five of these stars to put together a full meal; they'll also be required to select a serving of fruit or vegetables, which in some cases will be provided to the school through the Virginia Farm to School program or individual school gardens.
"The options in the '5 Star' make it easier for children in elementary schools to understand the new guidelines and how to balance a meal," said JoAnne Hammermaster of Vienna, a founding member of Real Food for Kids, a countywide group that has advocated for healthier school lunches. "If the different components are indicated on the lunch lines, then the students will get a fun visual to assist them in their choices."
Other changes, according to the USDA, include:
- Reducing calories and tailoring protein portions — both meat and meat alternatives — based on the age and grade level (K through 5) of the student
- Morewhole grain-rich breads and cereals.
- Offering only fat-free flavored or unflavored milk or 1 percent unflavored milk.
- Serving foods with reduced saturated fats and sodium and no trans fats.
Registered dieticians and chefs have been creating new school meals to meet the requirements, and also students'preferences, which the system tracks thorugh "monthly student taste parties," the system said in a statement.
"There has been an 80 percent reduction in the number of additives and preservatives in school meals," a change prompted largely by parent feedback, it said.
Hammermaster said the group "would be very enthusiastic" about a true Farm to School program, in which the county purchases, when possible, seasonal produce directly from local farmers.
"We believe there is a lot of opportunity for fun programs with the local farmers to help teach kids about where their food comes from, why fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier, sample a variety of fruits and vegetables, and learn about seasonal produce. This type of program can work well with school gardens, which are an excellent way to incorporate learning opportunities about food and tying it back into classroom subjects," she said.
Vienna Elementary School broke ground on a community garden last spring. Oak Hill and Providence Elementary schools also have gardens, and a number recieved seed or seed money last year.
The program is not the last of the changes coming to the system later this year, School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) said.
The board set aside money from FNS earlier this year to fund a fresh food kitchen program at Marshall High School, beginning in 2013.
The board also authorized a system-wide study of "how we can provide fresher, healthier food options for our students."
A selection advisory committee is in the process of selecting a consultant; menus and equipment are being selected for Marshall's pilot, McElveen said.
McElveen hopes the pilot can be used "as a guide for future endeavors, potentially at schools around the county."