Zayda Gonzalez chomped on a crispy chicken patty, but the Thomas Page Academy third-grader avoided the wheat bun.
“It tastes kind of weird,” said her classmate, Kalli Romero, 9, who gulped hers down. “It’s the texture.”
Cotati-Rohnert Park schools dumped white bread and rice for more whole grain-rich options years before the federal government started requiring it in 2012 as part of Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch initiative, said Suzie King, the district’s food service coordinator.
The first change came in 2014, King said, when schools had to lower sodium in their meals down to 1,230 mg, a 12 percent cut. Sodium levels this year were expected to drop to 935 mg, but the Trump administration froze the nutrition rules.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week announced he was rolling back the requirement, allowing schools at least until 2020 to continue serving meals with up to 1,230 mg of sodium, or 65 percent of the daily target.
He’ll continue waiving regulations requiring all grains served in the lunch line be rich in whole grains, and let schools bring back 1 percent flavored milk. Perdue contends the move gives schools flexibility in preparing more “appealing” meals.
“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition,” he said.
Health advocates, however, argued the nutrition rules are necessary to reverse the childhood obesity rate, which has more than tripled since the 1970s.
The Cotati-Rohnert Park school district officials welcomed more flexibility, although they don’t plan much change.
“We want to provide healthy and nutritious lunches for our students, but we do appreciate some local control and local flexibility,” said Robert Haley, district superintendent.
Vendors initially struggled providing tasty food that met the sodium limits when the rules changed in 2014, King said. While students didn’t notice the first sodium reduction, she worried they would if the feds forced the district to decrease it further.
“Imagine trying to remove 300 milligrams out of a meal,” she said.
“Salt is a seasoning. We as Americans use too much salt, but if you leave salt out, your food is bland.”
The district also likely would’ve had to cut back on menu options because of limited low-sodium ingredients available, said King, who’s still considering whether to bring back 1 percent chocolate milk.
Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, doesn’t plan on relaxing its standards. The district will continue offering nonfat milk and whole and multigrain bread, pasta and pizza, said Kenneth Bunns, the child nutrition services director. So far this school year, it’s served about 700,000 school lunches.
“It is our belief that healthy food choices will have great impact on the lifestyles of our students, and will help provide them information for healthier eating decisions in the future,” Bunns said.
King said her district serves about 1,400 to 1,500 daily lunches. Nearly half go to children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Schools must follow nutrition standards laid out by the federal government to be reimbursed for the free and reduced-price lunches. King said the government reimburses the district about $1.3 million annually.