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Lunch limits re-revised for now

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High school hamburger connoisseurs can rejoice: The meat patties and buns that are served at school are returning to their former size.

At least for this year. The sandwiches had been smaller so far this school year because of federal changes in lunch requirements. But some of those requirements, such as the caps on protein and whole grains, have been lifted for now.

Local food service workers aren’t sure what the U.S. Department of Agriculture will require next year.

The new federal guidelines that took effect this school year included caps on the amounts of protein and whole grains students could be served. Local schools had to analyze and adjust their menus to be sure students weren’t getting too many servings.

At Franklin, hamburger patties were reduced from about 3 ounces to 2 ounces. By comparison, the patties of quarter-pound hamburgers from fast-food restaurants are about 4 ounces. And the burger’s whole-grain buns shrank as well, food service director Jill Overton said.

Schools have minimum and maximum calorie requirements their lunches must meet under the federal guidelines. So students weren’t getting less food, just smaller portions. And while no caps were placed on fruits and vegetables, which typically are low in calories, Overton saw that more students were buying individual sandwiches and other items because they didn’t feel as full.

Food services workers at Franklin, Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson, Clark-Pleasant and Center Grove schools still were trying to figure out what their new USDA-compliant menus should look like when they received word this month the caps had been lifted.

School cafeterias still have to adhere to the calorie limitations, which range from 550 to 650 for elementary school lunches and 750 to 850 for high school lunches. But now they can use more proteins and whole grains to provide those calories.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson food service coordinator Carol Schaaf said the change came because schools were reporting difficulties in balancing their menus.

“There were a lot of schools, plus a lot of state feedback to the USDA, and they listened and made this change, at least for the remainder of the school year,” she said.

What food service workers don’t know is whether the caps will be back next year. That makes it difficult for them to plan their menus, which the Indiana Department of Education will begin auditing next year to ensure they meet the federal standards, food service directors said.

“Do we go through and redo all our menus again now and then again next summer?” Overton asked.

She said the USDA capped the amount of proteins and whole grains students received because while both are considered nutritious, they wanted to ensure students weren’t getting too many calories.

But that was confusing for some students who no longer were being served sides such as yogurt, which they thought was nutritious.

“It is, but unfortunately it didn’t fall in the maximum allotments anymore,” Overton said.

Now that the bans are gone, students can be fed more of the sides and sandwiches they were used to, though the schools still have to keep the portions small enough that they don’t exceed the calorie limits.

“It gives us a little more flexibility; but one of our main things now, one of our main restrictions is still the calorie cap,” Schaaf said.

Schools were given the current school year to revise their menus to bring them in line with the USDA’s requirements, Clark-Pleasant food service director Kim Combs said.

But currently none of the food service directors knows whether the protein and whole grain caps are gone permanently or if they’ll return next year.

If they do, Overton again will need to order smaller hamburgers.

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