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Stafford County trying to boost lunch biz

Carb-loving Stafford County students, rejoice. Your hamburger buns and dinner rolls will reappear in the lunch lineup this school year.

Students will also notice more chicken selections and high schoolers will see prepackaged chef’s salads as the Stafford schools nutrition department tries to woo customers who dropped out of the lunch lines last year.

Lunch sales dropped about 16 percent in the last school year as students reacted to some unpopular changes, said Chapman Slye, director of school nutrition for Stafford schools.

Those changes, which included smaller portion sizes and larger prices, ended up on Stafford lunch trays because of federal regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity rates.

In principle, Slye agreed with the regulations.

“If things continue, this will be the first generation with a shorter life-span than their parents,” he said.

And before the U.S. Department of Agriculture put changes on the school menus, Slye was already implementing some healthy switches: offering whole grains, low-fat milks and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables.

So he didn’t envision drastic changes to the Stafford schools’ meal plans.

But the USDA requirements read like a math problem in a student’s standardized-test nightmare: A high-school meal needed to be under 850 calories, offer a cup of fruit, a cup of vegetables and a cup of milk. And in one week, those lunches couldn’t include more than 12 ounces of grains or more than 12 ounces of protein.

And the breading on chicken nuggets or patties were included in the grain counts.

So hamburger buns became flatbread. The handmade dinner rolls shrank.

And as the rolls diminished, so did the number of the meal program’s paying customers. Students grumbled about rumbling stomachs. Technically, they could get more food than ever, Slye said. But most of the increased portions were fruits and vegetables, which weren’t always popular options. So a student who turned away the green beans or diced peaches would end up with less food. But because of other requirements about reimbursement rates, Slye had to raise prices three years in a row.

“So most kids saw this as paying more money for less food,” Slye said.

And few understood the reasons for the changes. The USDA spent two years developing the requirements, but gave schools only months to put them in place. That didn’t offer enough time to sell the healthier menus, Slye said.

He has always enjoyed teaching students about nutrition. In the days of the food pyramid, he would don a 7-foot replica of the triangular guide to food groups.

“I would just pop out of the inside and I was the food pyramid guy,” he laughed. “Then the food pyramid went away. Now they have a plate, and that’s not as much fun.”

But he did manage to have some fun with more recent changes to the school lunch program. This year, the USDA has relaxed some of the rules regarding grains and protein, so Slye has been able to bring back the dinner roll and the hamburger bun. He’s also increased portion sizes in some of the schools’ meat offerings.

To tell students the news, he donned a helmet adorned with plastic fruits and vegetables and created a video.

That production will be shown during the morning announcements in high schools and middle schools when school starts next week. Slye will also create nutrition advisory committees of students. And he will survey students to gauge reaction to the changes.

He hopes the outreach will help students learn about making healthier choices, even outside the cafeteria. Slye pointed out that while those who drew up the federal rules had good intentions, they overestimated the power of the school lunch program.

The USDA expected the changes to reduce childhood obesity, he said.

“I’m flattered that they think we can do all that,” Slye said. “But there needs to be more. Parents need to look at labels and offer healthy snacks at home, too.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973