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Chicken Nugget Could Be History, As Hen Hud Lunch Changes

MONTROSE, N.Y. - School lunch offerings are changing dramatically in the Hendrick Hudson School District. Over five years, iconic foods like chicken nuggets could disappear as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) alters price, serving size, fruit and vegetable offerings and sodium and fat content of school lunch.

"There's 272 pages to the new rule," said Hen Hud's food service director, Clare Carey. The regulations, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, are part of a campaign to combat childhood obesity championed by first lady Michelle Obama. The changes represent the first major update to school lunch in 15 years.

As serving sizes change, price is mandated to increase. By 2017, the district must match the federal reimbursement for reduced and free lunch by charging $2.66, a 24 percent increase from this year's price of $2.15. Changes are so dramatic that every district in New York is mandated to go to bid for food-service providers. Currently, Hen Hud uses Aramark.

"The portions are what's going to upset people," said Carey. Daily portions of meat have been cut to two ounces. Carey said if she exceeds meat portions one day, she has to cut portions the next day.

Rockland Bakery, supplier of sandwich rolls, changed bread-making equipment to make rolls smaller, allowing them to be served every day. Last year's rolls would have violated students' weekly caloric grain intake. Juice can only be served three days a week at elementary schools, otherwise sugar intake could exceed allowable amounts.

Packages of school cafeteria cookies made by Linden's are whole grain, and contain only two cookies, not the traditional three. Pizza dough is whole wheat, and the mozzarella is low-fat.

Whole grain breaded chicken nuggets might be eliminated next year, because breading must be counted as a serving of grains. By 2013, a la carte french fries in the high school will only be baked, not fried.

Butternut squash, spinach, kale, and beans are all new additions to school vegetables. A hamburger and milk used to meet nutritional requirements, but now students must have a fruit or vegetable on their plate before they are allowed to leave the lunch line, said Carey.

"My fear, is in the high school and middle school level, they're going to either going to go to a la carte, or they're going to start bringing lunch," said Carey. "A lot of the lunches that come from home are the unhealthiest lunches you'll see," she said.

Carey uses computer software to determine the caloric value of these new offerings and the quantities that must be offered. A banana, for example, will only meet fruit requirements if it's a one cup serving, so one banana might not be enough. Carey said she hasn't determined how to serve apples, since the small New York State apples she served last year are too small to meet the required fruit or vegetable serving size.

"The ultimate goal is to have healthier food provided to our children," said Carey.

For many kids who can't afford fresh food at home, she said, this could help them eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. About 16 percent of Hen Hud students receive free lunch, about 13 percent receive reduced lunch. Those numbers have increased almost 10 percent respectively over the last eight years, said Carey.

Carey said the district's breakfast program could also be in trouble, since she isn't sure how to offer breakfast that meets federal requirements for the current price of $1.

Caloric intake for students is limited by grade. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students are limited to 650 calories, 700 calories for middle school students and 850 calories for high school students.

Carey says the school lunch wasn't perfect when she arrived in 2004: The cafeteria sold 60 cases of Snapple sweet tea per week, Hostess cake snacks were common, chips were fried (not baked), SunnyD was a beverage selection.