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Latest federal school lunch requirements -- hold the salt

U.S. Department of Agriculture

School lunches have changed dramatically in recent years in because of the federal government’s Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, meant to curb childhood obesity. Portion sizes, calories and salt have been cut; whole grains, fruits and vegetables have been added. And now one central New York School district is bracing for the next changes.

The most recent change to federal guidelines this year prohibited the sale of baked goods, candy or chips doing school hours. Ken Warner, director of food services in the Syracuse City School District says that impacted some school groups fundraising activities, but didn’t impact the lunchroom.  

What he’s worried about is more cuts in sodium levels allowed by the federal government.  Right now the level allowed is approximately 1,200 milligram. Warner says the new limit will be in the 800-milligram range -- which, he says, is going to be very difficult.

Warner says the problem will be with lunch entrees. The district has been able to lower sodium levels up to now making changes to standard lunch items, like grilled cheese and tomato soup, which traditionally includes 2,000 milligrams of sodium. They’ve cut the sodium levels in half in the districts version, Warner says, by being creative.

"By using mozzarella cheese, which is lower sodium, and we use low-sodium diced tomatoes in our chunky tomato soup. So we still have the Campbell’s, but we add the diced tomatoes, which reduces that a little bit.”

Warner says these new sodium restrictions are still a few years away. In the meantime, the district will continue looking for lower sodium options for lunch. He’s says there are plenty of ways serve a low-sodium meal and keep taste on the table.

"You’ve got pepper, you’ve got all kinds spices that we can use,” said Warner. “In our high schools we’ve added flavor stations, which are salt-free spice blends, which they can put on their food.”

Schools must comply with the federal lunch standards to get funding to subsidize lunches for low-income students.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.