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Bread break: schools react to USDA policy

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Chicken nuggets and submarine sandwiches for all!

New U.S. Department of Agriculture school lunch regulations will allow unlimited grain and meat products on the menu for the remainder of the year, creating breathing room for lunch managers everywhere.

Since September, cafeterias had been limited to serving a high school student 10 to 12 ounces each of grains and meats per week.

A School Nutrition Association news release sent to schools Friday evening states the weekly maximums might be reinstated next year, depending on feedback. However, daily calorie maximums will remain unchanged.

At Sackets Harbor Central School District, cafeteria manager Todd C. Marshall said this may mean the return of chicken nuggets. The item was taken off the menu because servings were forced by the weekly limits to be too small. Some students were buying two lunches, and others started brown-bagging from home.

However, Mr. Marshall said that if he can find a way to bring back chicken nuggets while keeping them under the maximum calorie allowance, they soon may reappear on the menu.

“The guidelines are tough to follow, and maybe they realize they were doing too many things at once,” Mr. Marshall said.

Sackets Harbor parent Jamie L. McGuire said she thinks the regulation change is a move in the right direction.

She and fellow parent Sarah J. Gordon started an online petition titled “NY School Lunch: Smaller Portions, Hungry Kids” at the beginning of the school year after students began to complain about the reduced number of chicken nuggets they were allowed to eat. As of Monday afternoon, the petition had 5,291 signatures.

The women said their concern was that students who could not afford breakfast or did not have access to a proper dinner at home were not getting enough calories at school to make it through the day.

“Protein and grains will get to the kids a little more than the fruits and vegetables,” Mrs. McGuire said.

Arlis M. “Artie” Frego, food service manager for the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, was unavailable for comment. In the past, he had expressed concern over students living in poverty who stopped buying free or reduced-price lunches because they were not appealing.

South Jefferson Central School District food service manager Cynthia A. Overton said the original restrictions created challenges not only for her and her staff, but for industry suppliers to the district.

“When you get a nice roll that is well over 2 ounces of grain, at least you know the child can have that,” Mrs. Overton said. “You don’t have to skip every other day to fit within the requirements for the grain.”

However, she said the relaxed policies would not lead to dramatic changes on the menu, especially since the stricter policies may return in future years.

“We’re almost at the top of this mountain,” Mrs. Overton said. “We don’t want to tumble back down and have to climb up again.”

As an example of one way the district can change its offerings, Mrs. Overton said, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could return to the menu five days a week.

Indian River Central School District cafeteria manager Ann S. Easter said she is not planning to make menu changes until she knows for certain the relaxed grain and meat requirements will be permanent.

“I would hate to give it back only to take it away again next fall,” she said.

However, the district’s beloved submarine sandwiches — mentioned by students and Superintendent James Kettrick at countless Board of Education meetings since September — are back, though a little smaller. Ms. Easter said she recently found a 2-ounce, 51 percent whole grain submarine roll from a company in Buffalo to replace the 4-ounce rolls used in the past.

The sandwiches debuted Monday at the high school in Philadelphia and will be served every day. Middle school students will see them in the cafeteria today.

“I’m marketing it a mini deli sub,” Ms. Easter said. “They missed it.”

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