At the New Sweden Consolidated School in Aroostook County, food service manager Melanie Lagasse prepares most meals from scratch. The school’s 64 students, ranging from preschool to eighth grade, favor the chicken stew, chop suey with whole-wheat pasta and meatloaf.
A couple of weeks ago, Lagasse tested their palates with baked lemon pepper fish, served with a side of potatoes.
“Ninety-five percent of my meals are homemade,” she said. “They’re not ‘open a can and dump.’”
The small, rural school in northern Maine is at the forefront of a national effort to make school food healthier. Several years ago, anticipating stricter nutrition standards for school meals coming down the pike, New Sweden Consolidated began revamping its meals. The school switched to whole- and multi-grain breads, and Lagasse uses only wheat flour in the breads she cooks herself.
“We haven’t had white bread in our school for about five years,” she said.
The school also started serving half a cup of fruit and three-quarters of a cup of veggies at lunch, a change officially required just last year under new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, she said.
While students at many other schools dump healthier options straight into cafeteria trash bins, New Sweden’s students have grown accustomed to nutritious foods, first introduced in preschool, Lagasse said.
“I don’t have that garbage, because my kids were already at that stage,” she said.
On Sunday, Lagasse traveled to Washington, D.C., for a two-day trip to inform state leaders about the school’s efforts, implemented under a longtime wellness policy that also requires healthier snacks and drinks.
The National School Lunch Program has undergone the most significant nutritional changes in nearly two decades. New guidelines that took effect in the fall of 2012 under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act limit calories and salt, add more whole grains and require daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Schools must not only meet the nutritional requirements to qualify for increased federal reimbursements, but also keep a lid on costs while providing fresher, healthier ingredients.
About 84 percent of Maine schools now meet the updated meal standards, compared with 86 percent nationally.
Many Maine schools lack the kitchen space and equipment to prepare the healthier meals, forcing them to rely on inefficient, expensive workarounds, according to a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The average Maine school is an estimated 52 years old. In 1999, newly built schools were required to include separate cafeterias, but multipurpose rooms still exist in many older facilities, doubling as cafeterias and gymnasiums.
Ninety-nine percent of Maine schools, compared with 88 percent nationally, need at least one piece of equipment to better serve nutritious foods, the report found. Only a third of Maine school districts have a budget for upgrading kitchen equipment, and nearly half reported kitchen infrastructure needs in at least one school, mostly for more space.
“Equipment is a need, it’s been a need for many years,” said Walter Beesley, director of child nutrition programs for the Maine Department of Education.
Many schools can’t afford to replace kitchen equipment on a regular schedule, he said. In the Pew report, most schools said serving a greater variety of fruits and vegetables presented the biggest challenge. Nearly 60 percent of Maine schools lack new utensils to measure portion sizes accurately, among other equipment needs.
“The big thing I’m hearing now on the fruits and vegetables is the storage,” Beesley said, including calls for refrigerators and walk-in coolers.
Without proper storage, schools “may have to get more frequent deliveries instead of one delivery,” he said. “The more times a truck goes, the higher the cost goes.”
Maine would have to spend nearly $60 million to properly update school food service equipment, the Pew report found. That’s a far cry from the $74,000 grant the USDA awarded Maine this month for new equipment.
“Hopefully we’ll get some more,” Beesley said.
Growing numbers of Maine children rely on school meals for their daily nutrition, with nearly 40 percent qualifying for free lunch based on their family’s income. Parents are signing their children up for free lunch at an even faster rate than reduced-cost lunch, a troubling sign of families abruptly falling into neediness, likely from job losses, Beesley said.
New federal legislation calls for the USDA to issue loan guarantees to help schools finance improvements to lunch facilities and train food service personnel.
Lagasse said while she supports the bill, known as the School Food Modernization Act, schools would struggle to repay equipment loans. School lunch programs already operate on shoestring budgets, and the new nutritional guidelines cost schools 26 cents more per lunch tray, she said. For breakfast meals, the guidelines add 17 cents per tray, she said. About half of New Sweden Consolidated’s students eat breakfast at school.
“Every day our program is not getting the money that it’s costing us,” she said.
The USDA is looking beyond lunch, too. Updated national guidelines for school snacks and drinks kick in at the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year.