Schools Must Trim the Fat From Menus
The Agriculture Department last week unveiled a plan to overhaul the federal school-meals programs by trimming the fat content of the food served to millions of children in 92,000 schools each school day.
The proposed new rules--to go into effect in the 1998-99 school
year--would represent the biggest change in the federally subsidized
programs since the National School Lunch Act was adopted under
President Harry S. Truman in 1946.
"In a land where healthful foods are so readily available, it's just wrong to let our school-meal programs settle for a diet of ketchup and fries,'' Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala said in a statement last week.
U.S.D.A. officials said the new rules would not increase the cost of the lunch and breakfast programs, which this year received $4.7 billion.
The regulations, which have both delighted and worried school groups, would require that all school meals meet the United States Dietary Guidelines.
Most of the guidelines make only general suggestions about maintaining a healthy weight, eating fruits and vegetables, and moderating use of sugar, salt, and alcohol.
But schools would specifically be required to reduce the fat content of meals to 30 percent of calories, and saturated fat to 10 percent of calories, averaged over one week.
The rules recommend featuring more fresh fruits and vegetables, and using salt and sugar "in moderation,'' but do not set mandates.
Under the current rules, schools must adhere to a prescribed "meal pattern.'' Each lunch must offer one serving of meat or a meat alternative, two servings of either a vegetable or fruit, one serving of bread or grain, and milk.
The new guidelines would discard the idea of requiring specific foods each day, and instead let schools serve the kind and quantity of foods they choose as long as the meals did not exceed the fat maximum and continued to meet current requirements that they contain one-third of the recommended daily allowances of vitamins A and C, protein, iron, and calcium.
This system would give schools more flexibility in planning meals, U.S.D.A. officials argued.
The proposal is a response to a self-critical study published last October, in which the U.S.D.A. concluded that the meals served in the lunch program contain unacceptably high levels of fat and salt. (See Education Week, Nov. 3, 1993).
The study, which surveyed 575 schools, found that 38 percent of the calories in school lunches were derived from fat and 15 percent from saturated fat. Only 1 percent of the schools surveyed complied with the fat guidelines.
Nutrition advocates generally hailed the proposed rules as a welcome change.
"We applaud the Administration for taking school meals into the 21st century,'' said Mark Epstein, the director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, an nutrition-advocacy group. "American diets have undergone sweeping changes over the past decade, and it's time for our schools to catch up.''
"There's a lot of good here,'' said Kevin Dando, a spokesman for the American School Food Service Association. "There are many opportunities for schools to be flexible and do some creative planning.''
But some of the same experts said that the proposed guidelines do not go far enough.
Unless they commit fraud or fail to make a "good-faith effort'' to comply with the regulations, schools that did not meet the new requirements by the deadline would not be penalized, U.S.D.A. officials said.
And Mr. Epstein said that mandating specific reductions in fat while ignoring sodium, fiber, and cholesterol is "like trying to go full speed ahead with the brakes on.''
He also argued that the rules should go into effect sooner. Final regulations will be issued after a 90-day public-comment period, and schools would be required to comply by July 1, 1998.
"School food workers have the knowledge, the menus--all they need to do is roll up their sleeves and get to work,'' Mr. Epstein said.
But some education and nutrition groups disagreed, arguing that many districts lack the expertise and personnel to calculate the nutritional content of meals.
"The major concern we have is that there be sufficient training resources and equipment to allow schools to make this change,'' said Lynn Parker, the director of child-nutrition programs and nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group. "This is a very complicated plan, and it requires a level of sophistication.''
Training, Equipment Needed
Ellen Haas, the assistant secretary for food and consumer services at the U.S.D.A., said the agency plans to provide technical assistance and nutritional education to schools, and the Clinton Administration's 1995 budget requests $18.4 million for that purpose.
Officials also noted that the new rules would relax some of the paperwork requirements of the meals programs. The programs would come under state review every four years instead of five, and the U.S.D.A. plans to streamline the certification process for schools that have large numbers of students receiving some form of federal aid for low-income families. Only students whose family income is below a certain level are eligible for subsidized meals.
Ms. Haas said the technical-assistance funds would help school districts link up by satellite to share menus. Chefs would be recruited to help food workers plan creative, low-fat meals.
Ms. Haas also said a computer-software package would be available to assist schools in calculating the nutritional content of meals. But the regulations say only that software firms would be encouraged to develop such software, which might not be free.
In addition, many schools have no computers and may even require renovation before they could be installed, said Diane Shust, a senior professional associate at the National Education Association.
"Many of our schools are not even able to use computers, so the concept of giving them software is absurd,'' she said.
Some observers are also concerned that schools would opt to buy prepackaged meals that met the nutritional requirements but might be less enticing to students.
"First and foremost is nutritional quality, but the food has to be palatable for the students to eat it,'' said Mr. Dando.
New Choices on the Way
The prospect of new regulations has already prompted vendors to design low-fat menus and to produce more low-fat products to market to schools, such as pizzas topped with low-fat cheese and tacos made with turkey instead of beef.
Officials also said that the U.S.D.A. would attempt to improve "the nutritional profile'' of the free commodities delivered to schools.
The lunch program originally was created as an outlet for surplus commodities bought by the government, and efforts to make the meals healthier have been met with resistance by lawmakers sympathetic to the farm lobby.
For example, nutrition advocates have long sought to eliminate a requirement that schools offer whole milk to students.
The issue arose last month as the House Education and Labor Committee debated a bill to reauthorize the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Act. The panel approved a change allowing schools to drop whole milk if a minimum percentage of students did not buy it.
The panel also included a provision requiring the U.S.D.A. to consult with advocacy groups before issuing nutritional rules. The House bill awaits floor action, and the Senate Agriculture Committee is just beginning work on its bill, so it is unclear how the reauthorization may affect the U.S.D.A. initiative.
However, the chairman of the Senate panel praised the new rules.
"For lunch at school, students often have to choose between warm glop and cold glop,'' Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at the U.S.D.A. news briefing. "This will encourage more imaginative, nutritious meals that kids can look forward to.''