Federal rules on school meals that took effect this August limit bread and grains, require students to take a serving of fruits or vegetables, and generally push districts like Braintree toward an increased variety of foods with less fat and more fiber.
One item initially met with skepticism by some was the new Black Bean Brownie. It was added to school menus earlier this fall after a round of taste testing, and helps put more legumes into the food lineup, as required under the new guidelines.
A parent from Hollis Elementary at first criticized the dessert in an email to Megan Ahrenholz, Director, Food & Nutrition Services for Braintree Public Schools. She called putting beans in a brownie "the equivalent of putting broccoli in ice cream." But within a few days, the family had found a similar recipe, baked a batch and found themselves converted.
"It tastes just like a brownie, it's fudgy," Ahrenholz said in an interview.
The revised recipe is flourless, cutting back on grains, holds up to gluten intolerence and adds more of those increasingly important beans to the menu.
"It's kind of a win-win," Ahrenholz said.
This school year marks the convergence of two sets of revised nutrition guidelines that affect Braintree and districts throughout Massachusetts.
In August, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2010, took effect and covers all meals served within school hours. At the same time, new policies for vending machines, after and before-school food, and a la carte items were put in place by state authorities.
Some of the updates are challenging, Ahrenholz said, but the guidelines provide extended timelines for implementation in certain instances, and Braintree has already been working toward providing healthier options with the help of local nutrition committees.
"It is a change, but it is manageable," Ahrenholz said.
A mailing to families at the beginning of the school year outlined the new guidelines, which also include age-appropriate calorie limits, reduced sodium targets and a wider variety of vegetables such as the legumes, dark greens, and red and orange vegetables.
Of course, any attempt to alter the eating habits of students can only go so far without motivation from home. Though students are now required to take that serving of fruits and vegetables (or otherwise pay the more expensive a la carte price for their meal), whether they sit down and eat it is another question.
At Hollis, Principal Tim MacDonald said he plans to put in place a program to examine what students are throwing away to better understand what works and what doesn't. And by including healthier foods in creative ways, Ahrenholz said she hopes the schools will encourage students to try different things.
Roasted cauliflower with parmesan cheese, introduced last year, is one example, she said. An upcoming taste test will include a caprese sandwich – tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil – on half a roll. Ahrenholz also encourages recipe submissions, such as the Tuscan Bean Soup from one family that is being rolled out with grilled cheese on wheat bread.
"We're not only educating students, we're also introducing adults to new foods," Ahrenholz said.
Limiting portion sizes, especially when it comes to bread and grains, is an important aspect of the new federal rules. The amount of bread servings allowed for high school students per week has been cut by more than half, prompting changes like using a hot dog roll instead of a sub roll for sandwiches and giving students half a 12-inch wrap and supplementing it with a healthy side.
There has been some pushback from students, Ahrenholz said, but less among younger children. As students grow up with the new guidelines, she expects them to become second nature.
The shift in state guidelines affecting food outside of meals accelerated a change that Braintree has been working on, Ahrenholz said. Sodas were already banned in most cases, and now sweetened water is also not allowed.
Sugar limits discourage the sale of ice cream, and certain Chex Mix recipes cannot be sold because of salt guidelines. However, frozen juice treats and Fudgesicles are offered.
All school districts are required to comply with the new rules, and there is added incentive if districts file comprehensive reports through the state. Federal reimbursement will be increased by six cents per meal, helping with the cost of buying fresh produce and other ingredients.