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New Nutrition Guidelines Packing a Punch at Upper Perk
Written by Kelly Chandler Staff Writer

        What do soft pretzels, chocolate chocolate-chip cookies and potato chips all have in common in the Upper Perkiomen School District?  They have all undergone a nutrition facelift thanks to federal government regulations that were implemented this year.

        Beginning in July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted the Smart Snacks in Schools program.  The program sets stringent nutrition standards for food sold in cafeterias, in vending machines and by booster clubs.  The rules are in effect from first thing in the morning until half an hour after the school day is over.

        While the cafeterias were already operating under standards from the federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, an initiative headed by first lady Michelle Obama to fight childhood obesity, this particular program further cracks down on the grain, sodium, sugar and calorie content of foods offered.

        Students at Upper Perkiomen have already gotten accustomed to seeing smaller portions and things like whole grain sandwich rolls and pizza crust, but will see more of their favorite cafeteria foods transformed in the coming weeks, said Valerie Nartowicz, director of food services for Upper Perk.

        More snacks and sides will primarily contain whole grains instead of refined grains.  Those offerings, like whole-grain-rich soft pretzels, cookies, cereal bars and the like, must contain 51 percent or more of whole grains in order to conform to the new standards.

        Students may also see things like popped or puffed rice or Rice Krispie Treats, made with whole grain brown rice, Nartowicz said.      

        All foods must also meet two sets of standards which restrict fat and sodium content along with calories and sugars.  Under the new standards, total fat can't exceed 35 percent of the food's total calories), sodium content must be equal to or less than 230 mg for snack and side items and calories can't exceed 200. 

        Nartowicz, a registered dietician, said sodium restrictions, in particular, could be problematic.    She said in a clinical setting, patients with serious heart conditions are allowed more sodium than the guidelines allow for students, ranging from 1230 mg for entrees at the elementary level to 1420 mg at the high school level.

        "Lower sodium is an acquired taste," she said.  "Students could come in and say 'Ew, this tastes like cardboard.'"

        "The regulations have a point though," Nartowicz explained.  "They want to influence what students eat at school and then hopefully at home so they become savvy consumers…But the need to incorporate particular government regulations every time I turn around doesn't give us time to recover.  If they're making the standards then at least give us funding."

        Nartowicz referred to the 2012-13 National School Lunch Standards which only allowed two ounces of proteins in entrees, reducing things like hamburgers from 4 ounces to 2, and restricted carbohydrates which resulted in hoagies at Upper Perkiomen High School suddenly shrinking from 10 inches to 4.  Those standards were repealed the next year.   

        For Nartowicz and the food service department, which is self-sustaining, students deciding to bring their own lunches instead of buying, in lieu of the new standards, can be financially devastating.

        "Yes I work in education but I also run a restaurant so I need to at least break even," she said.  "I have never taken money from the [district's] operations budget and that's my goal.  If we run a $40,000 deficit, say, they could decide to outsource.  I want to save my staff's jobs." 

        Nartowicz said she hopes the latest changes will be welcomed with open arms.    She said both her staff and outside companies have done a great job implementing the new standards while still trying to put out a tasty product at a very reasonable price.

        But in the end, the students will decide.

        "I want the community to know our food is prepared well, is hot or cold as it should be and is highly nutritious.  We're not your mom's cafeteria anymore," she said.  "I invite parents to come out and try the food…We are always open for suggestions."





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