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Area school officials say new rules proposed by the Trump administration that could change what schools across the nation are allowed to serve for meals will not weaken nutritional standards here.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the new rules last month in an effort to provide “more flexibility” to school administrators overburdened by Obama-era regulations, according to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The changes also reduce food waste and “empower” schools to put meal staff back in kitchens instead of filling out paperwork now required with the National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, Perdue said.

But according to news reports citing nonprofits, health advocates and critics of the proposals, the new flexibilities could weaken the current standards.

Colin Schwartz of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told NPR last month that the proposals could create “a huge loophole” in school nutritional guidelines outlined in the NSLP. The changes pave “the way for children to choose pizza, burgers and French fries … in place of balanced school meals every day,” he said.

Potatoes in the form of french fries and tater tots, the American Heart Association worried, would be allowed to replace required daily vegetable servings, while slices of pizza could be up for grabs as single a la carte line menu items, free of vegetable requirements that must also be served with those foods now in place.

Critics of the proposals also worry that districts looking to meet their bottom line and save money may opt to serve those starchy foods instead of leafy greens, turning what’s now occasional fry servings into the norm, rather than the exception. They argue that the loopholes could result in disastrous effects for the millions of children who rely on school meals to meet their daily nutritional needs.

In fact, more than 30 million children across the country take part in the NSLP every day, while here in Connecticut, 182 districts across the state participate, amounting to more than 150,000 students statewide. The School Nutrition Association of Connecticut says that one in six children in the state live in “food insecure” households, and child nutrition programs act as a first line of defense against hunger, playing a crucial role in promoting health and preventing disease.

But here in southeastern Connecticut, school districts have been less worried. Many officials told The Day that proposed regulations won’t affect the already high nutritional standards schools follow under both federal and state laws, while several others are taking a “wait and see” approach.

“It is too early to tell how proposed changes may impact our lunch and breakfast meals,” Waterford Superintendent Tom Giard said.

Districts argued that because their schools have worked hard to meet the current high standards, they are not likely to now roll back the progress made to meet Obama-era regulations rolled out in 2012, but passed in 2010 under what’s known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

“Lots of school districts — certainly ours and many other surrounding districts — are doing far and above what the minimum regulations are stating,” said Samantha Wilson, New London’s child nutrition food director. “We are going to keep doing exactly the same thing. Once we get a final rule from the USDA — and we are unsure of when that will happen — we will then look at what the potential changes would be, how it would affect our program and our students and then make the best decisions for the well-being of our kids.”

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said he would be inclined to keep the current nutrition guidelines with the healthier choices for school lunches. “It’s difficult to get a head around the idea that the 2010 changes based on childhood obesity are being rolled back, when kids are eating better,” he said.

“We are already used to doing what’s right and what’s best for the kids,” said Groton Public Schools Food Services Director Ernie Koschmieder, who is also president of Connecticut’s School Nutrition Association. “We’re already there in Connecticut, where a lot of states are not.”

“The majority of folks in Connecticut, because we’ve already been following these stricter restrictions for several years, think these regulations are working,” he continued. “And Groton’s standpoint is that if some of these new proposals are put in, we’re not going to really roll back doing anything. What we are doing is working.”

The Obama-era regulations, according to the USDA, sought to create healthier and more nutritional meal patterns and overhauled how schools were preparing and serving food. That turned what was once the “Wild, Wild West of school lunches” to now highly regulated meals that, despite how they may look, pack tons of nutrition, said East Lyme’s Food Service Director Chris Urban.

Urban said those rules required all school meals to come in under dictated calorie, fat, sodium and sugar maximums, while including mandated portions of vegetables, fruits, proteins and grains as part of every meal, while Connecticut has additional restrictions on ingredients such sweeteners, artificial fat replacers and partially hydrogenated oils.

Potatoes, which are counted as a vegetable under a starch subgroup, can’t be used to meet other weekly vegetables requirements, Urban said. That’s because lunch menus must include specific weekly quantities of five separate vegetable subgroups, including a “dark green” subgroup — veggies such as broccoli, kale and spinach — and a “red/orange” subgroup — including carrots, squash and tomatoes.

According to the state’s Department of Education, every district in New London County participates in NSLP.

Districts also must follow Connecticut Nutrition Standards, or its CT Healthy Food Certification, for all foods sold outside of school meals, such as a-la carte sales, fundraisers, school stores, snack sales, etc., the Department of Education said in an email to The Day.

Connecticut also implements strict standards as part of a-la-carte meals. Should students want to grab a calzone instead of opt for the traditional lunch meal, they must also take a fruit or vegetable with their meal, according to Connecticut regulations, Urban said. So even though it seems the feds might want to loosen those rules, allowing for the calzone to be served on its own, he said, Connecticut already has certain rules limiting that.

And students taking snacks — which are offered only at middle and high schools — aren’t getting so-called junk food. A Pop-Tart served in a school’s a-la carte line, for example, must be whole grain and contain less sugar and fat than a regular Pop-Tart, while chips will be baked and made with less fat.

Additionally, the state provides lists of approved foods from which school districts can buy breakfast and lunch items — all the food comes from providers who specialize in meeting strict nutritional standards. The state also provides interactive spreadsheets for nutritionists and directors to organize menus, indicating whether meals surpass calorie, fat, sodium and sugar limits.

While touring the cafeteria at the Catharine Kolnaski Magnet School in Groton on Thursday, Koschmieder explained that the cheeseburgers being served that day were not ordinary ones. The buns were whole grain, though he said “they don’t look too wheat-y,” and the burgers were being topped with low-sodium American cheese. “It’s not like those Land O’Lakes singles you get at the grocery stores, which are much more sodium saturated,” he said.

“And the burgers we use are either infused with applesauce … or with mushrooms blended in for moisture,” he said. “These are non-allergens and add flavor to the burger instead of the binders that they typically have to use.” Plus, the burgers are specially made to come in under certain calorie, fat and sodium counts, as is everything else schools serve.

The regulations, Koschmieder explained, prompted school districts and food providers across the state to completely overhaul and evolve their meal programs and offerings. What seems like white bread is actually whole grain and enriched, and what seems like a typical pizza slice is specially made to also come in under certain thresholds.

“Honestly, it was tough at first because trying to find products that met the USDA guidelines was tough on its own,” he said. “A lot of manufacturers were trying to meet the new, strict standards in the products and just weren’t there yet in terms of taste or options. It limited a lot of what schools could get. Since then, they’ve really come a long way with the foods.”

Koschmieder said the industry continues to evolve and schools continue to find creative and appealing solutions to meet nutrition requirements — there is now federal funding for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases year-round, as well as a “farm-to-school” program that allows schools to serve local farm-fresh produce — and they are not likely to stop. “It wouldn’t make sense,” he said. “We wouldn’t just say, ‘Let’s stop and let’s start back pedaling.’ Especially now, when our high school kids are the ones who were introduced to this when they were in kindergarten, first and second grade.”

“We have a generation of kids who’ve all become accustomed to the program. It’s all they’ve known. So why would you back pedal when you don’t have to? Because it truly is working,” he added.

Koschmieder explained school meal programs operate somewhat like a high-functioning restaurant. “Technically, we are the biggest restaurant in Groton,” he said. “Bigger than Pfizer, bigger than EB. That’s because we are producing anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 meals every day across a district within the span of two hours. It’s immense.”

And these programs are responsible for producing thousands of meals within the span of a couple hours every day on immensely tight budgets — all while meeting a bevy of nutritional standards. On average, a school district will only have approximately $3 to spend per meal, and in some cases less. Much of the money also must be used to pay staff and maintenance costs in addition to food costs.

The majority of the region’s school districts run entirely self-funded meal programs, meaning they do not use taxes to pay for the programs but rather money from school meal purchases and funds provided from the federal government.

How much each district receives from the government depends on a variety of factors, including how many students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Norwich, for example, which provides free breakfast and lunch to all of its 3,800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, was reimbursed nearly $3 million from the federal government last year. Ledyard — a smaller school district, by comparison, with about 29% of its 2,400 students eligible for free or reduced-price meals — is on track to be reimbursed about $331,000 from the federal government this academic year, its Director of Finance Rachel Moser said.

There are plenty of challenges districts still face, and that’s where some of the proposed rule changes might help districts serve their kids better rather than hinder, Koschmieder said.

Responding to the proposed regulation last week, the state Department of Education Bureau Chief of Health and Nutrition John Frassinelli agreed that the proposed rule changes aren’t necessarily detrimental. He said he does not see the possibility of a vacuum “in which schools can provide completely unhealthy meals.”

Koschmieder argued that proposals to roll back the frequency at which the state’s Department of Education must perform audits of its districts — which take districts months to prepare for — as well as the amount of paperwork required to be filled out by kitchen staff, could help put staff back in the kitchen, doing the work that matters most.

“And that’s feeding our kids,” he said. “In the end, for my kids, I want to make sure I’m going above and beyond. … We just want to make sure our kids are eating as healthy as possible.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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