By Mark Rountree
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Childhood obesity and food availability are two issues facing many students in Oklahoma and across the nation.
Dea Rash, Payne County Extension Family Consumer Sciences/4-H Educator, said about 30 percent of the nation’s youth are obese and many go to bed hungry because their families cannot afford to put a meal on the table every night.
“A lot of kids across Oklahoma count on getting a nutritious meal at school,” Rash said. “Now we have policies that help us address obesity and ensure kids who are missing meals at home are getting something healthy at school.”
Deana Hildebrand, an Oklahoma State University assistant professor and extension specialist, said approximately 61.6 percent of Oklahoma students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. Each day, approximately 434,000 students in the state receive free school lunches, and approximately 227,500 eat breakfast at school at no cost to the student.
In Stillwater Public Schools, approximately 44 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, said Krista Neal, director of child nutrition for the Stillwater district.
“School meal programs were never meant to provide the child’s full nutritional needs over a day,” said Hildebrand. “Parents still need to take responsibility for their children’s nutritional needs, too.”
Stillwater students who are not eligible to receive free meals can purchase meals at a relatively low cost. At the elementary schools, students can eat breakfast for 75 cents and lunch for $2.10. At the secondary level, students can eat breakfast for $1.25 and lunch for $2.35.
The district’s Lunch Meal Pattern was devised by Neal to account for daily minimum and maximum quantities of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and fluid milk, as well as the parameters for calories, saturated fats, sodium and trans fat.
School nutrition specialists will have more flexibility in planning school lunches as a result of a measure recently approved by the federal government.
The United States Department of Agriculture announced in December it is temporarily relaxing the daily and weekly maximum limits of grains and meat in school lunches in Oklahoma and across the nation for the remainder of the school year.
Schools can make available nine ounces of grain for grades K-5, 10 ounces of grain for grades 6-8 and 12 ounces of grain for grades 9-12. As for meat, schools can make available 10 ounces for all levels through eighth-grade, and 12 ounces for grades 9-12.
“My goal all along was that students would never notice the difference,” said Neal. “Their lunch should look the same every day. So how does this effect the kid sitting in biology class? My goal is that it doesn’t. If I am doing my job right and my staff is doing their job right, the kids shouldn’t notice.”
The USDA has established grade-specific minimum and maximum caloric limits for students at lunch. For example, schools are required to provide a daily minimum of 550 calories and a maximum of 650 calories for elementary school students. For grades 6-8, the minimum is 600 calories and the maximum is 700. For grades 9-12, the minimum is 750 and the maximum is 850.
Neal said caloric maximum limits can be problematic at the secondary school level for students participating in rigorous athletic workouts.
Hildebrand said the limits also account for other students who are more sedentary.