District 196 food service director advocates for flexibility, funding in Washington, D.C.

More people eat in the cafeterias within the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District than perhaps any other place in the south metro.

About 20,000 students eat lunch within the district’s 31 cafeterias every day.

It’s a complex operation.

Food and Nutrition Services is constantly trying to perfect the formula where the food is nutritious, tasty, affordable and easy to mass produce while adhering to federal standards.

The students might not like everything that’s served, but the district doesn’t always have much of a choice.

District 196 Director of Nutrition Services Wendy Knight attended the School Nutrition Association’s 45th annual Legislative Action Conference April 2-4 in Washington, D.C., with 900 other school nutrition professionals to talk with members of Congress about issues with the current and proposed nutrition programs and regulations.

“We want to talk to them about the more practical flexibility,” Knight said prior to leaving for the conference. “They took the calories, the fat, the protein, the sugar, the sodium, they took everything out. There’s not much edible food left to eat. A lot of these regulations have resulted in unintended consequences.”

Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, Knight has noticed a drop in lunch participation.

Change can be a challenge at times and many students have adapted, but it’s an ongoing challenge to follow the guidelines.

One big issue is sodium. Knight said it’s like a low-salt hospital diet.

“You have built-in salt in milk, bread and cheese,” Knight said. “You can’t remove it all. Some of it is just naturally occurring in the food we eat.”

The guidelines say that only whole grains can be used. The standard was once 50 percent.

“Most of our grains where whole before, but it’s been hard to source food to meet those qualifications,” Knight said. “You find out the bread or muffin or roll you’re serving doesn’t meet the standards, you have to find available manufacturers and then a convince a distributor to put it on their shelves.”

Then you have to get students to eat it.

“When you can’t have salt on your eggs, it’s hard,” Knight said.

It doesn’t make it any easier when the school district is alone in following the restrictions.

“We kind of stick out,” Knight said. “Parents don’t have to follow these restrictions at home. Most restaurants provide these larger servings and people get used to it.”

At the same time, some students need bigger portions.

“There’s no way an athlete, a 6-(foot)-6 football player, there’s no way a school lunch is going to fit their needs,” Knight said.

By 2013, students were growing accustomed to the new menu, but “we had a lot of angry, upset high school kids,” Knight said.

Knight also said she’s noticed that students have grown more health conscious.

“We’re getting more requests for vegetarian options,” Knight said.

Nutrition is a key part of the academic experience.

“Many studies link good nutrition to academics,” Knight said. “More and more schools are increasing access to breakfasts, which is really helping.”

Knight doesn’t want to go back to the way it was seven years ago.

“We feel we’ve been serving healthy and nutritious lunches for years,” she said.

But she would appreciate some flexibility.

That’s what she’s going to ask for when talking with lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

They’re also visiting with lawmakers from Minnesota including U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, who represents District 196, along with several other representatives on both sides of the political aisle.

“We’re going to inform them about how our school meals program operates and ask for additional funding,” Knight said. “Our mission is to urge Congress to continue to fund our school meal program and we’re asking for support for our rising costs.”

Another topic is a changing the funding formula to block grants.

Knight said the change is being discussed by lawmakers, and it would be a major change to the way things have been done since 1946.

“It would cap the amount of money the schools would get,” Knight said. “They prevent food service programs from getting the necessary funding and eliminates a guarantee that puts America’s most vulnerable students at risk.”

This is Knight’s second trip to Washington, D.C., for the conference.

“It’s been a positive thing,” Knight said. “Hopefully we’re heard.”

Contact Andy Rogers at andy.rogers@ecm-inc.com.