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Healthier food coming soon to school cafeterias

When students return to school in a few weeks, the biggest changes they see may be in the food they eat. It will be healthier and served in smaller portions, with more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, and less trans fat and sodium.

The food transformation comes from two major overhauls in the regulations governing school food taking effect this fall.

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The US Department of Agriculture has issued its first major rewriting of nutritional guidelines for government-subsidized school lunches and breakfasts in more than 15 years. And the state has created its first set of nutritional standards for other school food products — sold a la carte in the cafeteria, in vending machines, and immediately before and after school — to make them healthier and less calorie-laden.

“All align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” said Karen McGrail, assistant director of the John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition at Framingham State University. “They’re all helping to promote healthy food in the same directions.”

The dietary guidelines, released last year, were the federal government’s response to increasing numbers of overweight and obese Americans. They urge all Americans to eat less, fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, switch to fat-free or lower-fat milk, eat less salt, and avoid sugary drinks.

Students who get school lunch will be required to have at least one vegetable or piece of fruit on their tray. Foods like pizza will not disappear from school lunch menus, but they will become healthier. And chocolate and other flavored milk, which will have limits on sugar this year, could disappear entirely next year: State regulations will require flavored milks to have no more sugar than low-fat plain milk by the 2013-2014 school year.

The new state regulations, which took effect Aug. 1, ban deep-fat fryers in school kitchens and trans fat in “competitive food” — anything sold in schools outside the subsidized lunches and breakfasts. Juice cannot be served in portions larger than 4 ounces, or a half cup. Serving sizes of all food, except for entrees, must be 200 calories or less.

The new rules also require schools to offer water to students all day without charge. Fruits and unfried vegetables must be offered anywhere that food is sold in schools, other than vending machines that are either unrefrigerated or that only sell beverages.

And by the 2013-2014 academic year, schools must offer students nutritional information on all competitive food and beverages that are not prepackaged, except for fresh fruit and vegetables. This recommendation reflects studies suggesting that many people eat fewer calories when they are given nutritional information about food they are buying.

Some schools, including those in Sharon, had already started making their lunch lines healthier. Still, this year will bring some changes, said Carol Judd, food service director. 

Instead of offering a single vegetable a day, Judd is offering students two each day this year. Her menus for the middle school in September include days offering a choice of carrot sticks or minted peas; broccoli or Caesar salad; and tomato soup or three-bean salad.

Like some other school food service directors, she worries that students will drink less milk if flavored versions are phased out. In Sharon, parents can instruct cafeteria officials on whether their children are allowed to buy flavored milk.

“It’s such a hot-button issue right now,” Judd said. “Because of the amount of sugar, parents really don’t want their kids to have flavored milk. But the issue we have is once you cut out flavored, milk consumption goes down. We’re concerned about kids getting vitamin D and calcium.”

Earlier this month, Framingham State’s Stalker Institute held a three-day conference in Marlborough to help schools understand the new regulations. The institute has an online nutrition evaluator, where school officials can find out whether a specific food meets the new standards.

The institute has also created the “A-List,” which started as a way to make recommendations to schools about which processed snacks are healthiest. When new standards were released, the institute revised the list, and it went from 2,000 items to 600, McGrail said.

For instance, the only Doritos tortilla chips on the list is a reduced-fat version with 130 calories per serving. Small packages of goldfish crackers are there, but only those made with whole grains. Some ice cream meets the new standards, including So Delicious Organic Sandwiches in chocolate.

The conference included sessions on how to encourage students to eat healthier food. At other conferences, McGrail said, she has heard a mantra: “It’s not nutrition unless they eat.”

“Obviously, having kids being open to healthy foods is part of why this is all being done,” she said.

School districts that have already made their menus healthier will have an easy time abiding by the new rules, McGrail said. “I think that different schools are going to be at different places with this,” she said. “But many have already taken lots of steps.”

The fate of chocolate milk is still murky. The new state and federal regulations have different standards for flavored milk this year, and state standards are more restrictive. The federal rules require that flavored milk sold with meals be either low-fat or fat-free. The state standards say milk sold anywhere else at school must have less than 22 grams of total sugar.

That means schools could sell different kinds of flavored milk with lunch and a la carte, or at other times during the school day. And next year, when state rules will prohibit flavored milk that has more sugar than unflavored milk, will be even more complicated.

“Some schools already phased flavored milks out, and that solved that problem for them,” McGrail said.

In Braintree, food services director Megan Ahrenholz said some cafeterias in her district may continue to sell flavored milk in 2013-2014, though only students buying a full school lunch would be allowed to buy it. She has also been working on creative ways to market plain milk.

She continues to look for healthier meals that will appeal to students.

“Last year we did some roasted cauliflower that was a new recipe,” she said. “A lot of adults thought it was spectacular.”

For the students, it was harder to tell. “It’s just a matter of getting them to try it,” she said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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