By Kathleen McGinty           

With obesity trends rising higher and food regulations clamping down, the Andover Public Schools’ Food Services department is currently in the process of transforming the 2012-2013 cafeteria menu in order to satisfy federal, state, and district standards. For Andover High students, this means changes to almost all of next year’s meal offerings.

The Massachusetts Act Relative to School Nutrition, which imposes new regulations on the food services department, was signed into law on July 30, 2010, in an effort to combat childhood obesity and to provide students with meal choices that enhance learning, as well as facilitate healthy growth, development, and eating practices. The new standards target the nutritional value of foods served in school cafeterias; breads must be whole grain, beverages cannot contain artificial sweeteners, and no items can contain trans fat, to name only a few. The law will officially launch as of August 1, 2012.

According to Gail Koutroubas, Andover’s food service director, this new state law will have the largest impact on the cafeteria’s à la carte service.

“[Obesity rates have] just skyrocketed in the past 30 years,” Koutroubas said.  “The whole idea is that…we increase the reimbursable lunches.” These meals, which meet federal government standards, consist of a combination of food groups such as fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

While these new state rules also apply to foods and beverages coined “competitive foods” (such as à la carte items, snack bar offerings, fund-raising bake sales, and food served at school-sponsored events) served either 30 minutes before or after school, items sold in vending machines must comply with regulations at all times. Therefore, vending machines will be emptied of snacks and beverages deemed “competitive” by the law.  Sports drinks such as Gatorade will be eliminated, leaving water, 4-ounce servings of non-artificially flavored juices, and 1 percent or fat-free 8-ounce servings of milk.  Additionally, snacks offered by vending machines must contain no more than one serving per package and cannot exceed more than 200 calories. Koutroubas anticipates that snack items such as Kashi bars, Clif bars, and single-serve, whole-grain Pop Tarts will be available to students next year.

Although new regulations have forced the Food Services department to revamp their menu, Koutroubas spoke excitedly about the advances that the Andover High food services department is making in the way of homemade cooking.  Proudly stating that the staff is very “conscious” of what ingredients they put into their food, Koutroubas noted that efforts are being made to further their “from scratch” cooking.

“Today we roasted real turkey breasts!” she said.  The salsa, made of tomatoes and spices, served that afternoon was also homemade by the food services staff.

The Food Services department has been actively engaging in workshops during half-days, attending training sessions. During these workshops, some of which are titled “Back to Basics,” employees learn to improve the quality of meals by preparing them with wholesome, genuine ingredients.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently visited AHS to evaluate the cafeteria menu in order to determine whether the school is eligible for the bronze level of the Healthier U.S. School Challenge.  According to Koutroubas, only 1 percent of schools in the nation achieve this level, one that recognizes schools that have created healthy environments by promoting nutrition and physical activity.  Andover elementary and middle schools are in the final process of being approved for the bronze level, but the USDA is still working on reviewing the high school’s food offerings.