Published Online: April 5, 2011
Updated: March 24, 2012
Includes correction(s): March 24, 2012

Ultimate Food Fight Erupts as Feds Recook School Lunch Rules

Cafeteria worker Janice Robinson places trays of pizza alongside fresh fruits at James B. McPherson School in Chicago. School meals would be required to include more fruits and vegetables under proposed federal rules.
—John Zich for Education Week

Across the country, school cafeteria managers, farm lobbyists, food companies, celebrity chefs, students, and parents have started the ultimate food fight.

The skirmish is over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts, prompted by the recent passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, to rewrite the rules about meals served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. At stake is what will and won’t be offered in the breakfasts and lunches schools serve millions of children every weekday.

“It’s not your grandmother’s school lunch anymore,” Nancy Rice, the head of the School Nutrition Association, said at one of the advocacy group’s gatherings last month.

The first rewrite of school-meal rules in 15 years, the proposed standards aim to cut sodium, boost the amount and types of fruits and vegetables students are offered, cut saturated fat, increase whole grains, and for the first time, limit calories. (The new proposed standards don’t set limits on or address sugar, in part because sugar wasn’t addressed in school meal requirements created by the Institute of Medicine. The USDA based its proposal largely on the Institute’s recommendations.) The proposed rules, intended to simultaneously combat childhood obesity and malnutrition, have drawn thousands of emails, letters, and drawings that voice opinions about the proposed nutrition standards for school meals. And some of the interest has been high-profile, including school food activist Jamie Oliver, also known as “The Naked Chef,” who has thrown his support behind the changes; the Berkeley, Calif.-based organic and natural foods company Annie’s Homegrown, which created a website devoted to sending thank-you notes to the USDA for adding more vegetables to school meals; and the Washington-based National Potato Council, which also has a new website pushing for more potatoes to be allowed in school meals.

The proposed rules were published in January and comments are expected to roll in until the April 13 deadline. It may be next year before the rules are final, giving schools until at least the 2012-13 school year to put the new standards into practice. But stakeholders are asking for many concessions, saying some of the requirements would be impossible or have already proved so in school cafeterias.

“It is difficult to have one-size-fits-all,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told school nutrition directors in March. “I feel your pain. The trick is doing the balancing act ... between what is appropriate ... and fiscally responsible.”

One of the biggest concerns is the expected cost to school districts: $6.8 billion over five years on food and labor. Some districts would have to buy new kitchen equipment, too.

The New Menu for Cafeterias

The nutrition standards for school meals would change dramatically under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Among the proposed changes:

ALL MEALS

  • Milk: One-cup servings of unflavored milk must be 1 percent milk-fat or fat-free, and one-cup servings of flavored milk must be fat-free.
  • At first, half of bread products served must be made with at least 51 percent whole grains. Two years after the USDA implements the nutrition regulations, all breads served must be at least 51 percent whole grain.

BREAKFAST

  • Students must be offered one full cup of fruit at breakfast. Only half a cup could be juice, and that would have to be 100 percent fruit juice. Fruit could be replaced with vegetables.
  • A meat or meat alternative, such as eggs, yogurt, or cheese, would have to be served every day. Tofu is not an approved meat alternative.
  • The calorie range is 350 to 500 for elementary students, 400 to 550 for middle schoolers, and 450 to 600 for high schoolers.
  • No starchy vegetables—potatoes, corn, peas, or lima beans—are allowed.
  • Over the course of 10 years, schools must reduce sodium to 430 milligrams or less per breakfast for elementary students, 470 milligrams or less for middle schoolers, and 500 milligrams or less for high schoolers.

LUNCH

  • Elementary and middle students must be offered a one-half cup serving of fruit every day. High school students must be offered a cup every day.
  • The calorie range is 550 to 650 in elementary school, 600 to 700 in the middle grades, and 750 to 850 in high school.
  • Elementary and middle school students must be offered at least one ¾-cup serving of vegetables every day; one cup for high school students.
  • Starchy vegetables must be limited to a one-cup serving a week.
  • A one-half-cup serving of dark-green vegetables must be offered at least once a week.
  • A one-half-cup serving of orange vegetables must be offered at least once a week.
  • A one-half-cup serving of legumes—black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, green peas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, soy beans, split peas, and white beans—must be served once a week.
  • Over 10 years, schools must reduce sodium to 430 milligrams or less per lunch in elementary school, 470 milligrams or less in middle school, and 500 milligrams or less in high school.

The price tag was a main reason the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools lobbied against the law. Because of the cost, the state of the economy, and the possibility that additional federal money per meal to meet the requirements may not materialize until after they go into effect, the Arlington, Va.-based AASA, in its comments, said districts need more time to put the final regulations into practice. The School Nutrition Association, a group of 55,000 school nutrition directors based in National Harbor, Md., also wants more time, in part because some foods required aren’t available in some regions.

Adding more fresh fruits and vegetables this year to school meals in Norfolk, Va., cost about $500,000, said Helen Phillips, the school district’s senior director of school nutrition and president-elect of the School Nutrition Association. But at least in her district, changes in anticipation of the federal regulations have been put in over time, allowing her to space out the added costs. For districts with less progressive menus, costs could shoot upward more quickly.

“The cost is big” anyway, Ms. Phillips said. But compounding the change, “food costs are at an all time high.”

But Margo G. Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, which lobbied for the law, finds neither the timeline nor the costs insurmountable.

“There are lots of school districts that are serving healthy meals under the current reimbursement rate,” Ms. Wootan said, referring to how much school districts are paid by the USDA per meal.

The federal agency has suggested districts raise prices, if necessary, to offset costs, although school nutrition directors fear that could turn off some students.

Whole-Grain Everything

Aside from cost, there are concerns about nearly every part of the regulations. One proposed rule requires schools to switch all breads—tortillas, pizza crust, pancakes—to whole grains. At first, half of all bread products must be whole-grain rich, or made with at least 51 percent whole grains. Two years after the rules are final, all grains served would have to be whole-grain rich.

In the Sioux Falls, S.D., schools, Child Nutrition Supervisor Joni Davis said her 21,500-student district is halfway there.

“We’ve been talking to vendors, and they’re listening,” Ms. Davis said, although at first, they thought she was “a little bit crazy” for asking for whole-grain breading on chicken patties.

But the Anne Arundel County schools in Maryland abandoned a yearlong effort to switch to whole grains for some lunch items, said Jodi Risse, the supervisor of food and nutrition services in the 75,000-student district. While students didn’t seem to notice the change in breakfast breads, they quickly learned to avoid pizza and egg rolls made with whole grains.

“We couldn’t tell as adults,” Ms. Risse said, but for students, “over a few months we saw the consumption of egg rolls just go away. They probably don’t eat it that way anywhere else.”

And there can be a tradeoff when adding whole grains: more sugar. For example, when the Schwan Food Co. of Marshall, Minn., reformulated the pizza it makes for schools to increase whole grains, it added sugar, a comparison of the printed nutrition facts for the two products shows. The USDA said it hopes that calorie requirements will keep sugar levels in check.

‘Bok Choy? Watercress?’

In the Burlington, Vt., schools, Food Service Director Doug Davis said his 4,000-student district has easily incorporated orange and dark-green vegetables into menus, in part because of a farm-to-school program that emphasizes local produce.

Lunch Letters

In letters to the Agriculture Department, children thank the federal agency for the proposed nutrition rules:

“Those are the kinds of things that grow best for us,” Mr. Davis said, so students are used to eating kale and butternut squash. The proposed rules require at least one half-cup serving each of dark-green and orange vegetables a week. They include bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, dark green leafy lettuce, kale, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, spinach, turnip greens, and watercress, and acorn squash, butternut squash, carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes.

Burlington students eat vegetables, including zucchini and carrots, in breakfast breads, too.

But back in Sioux Falls, Ms. Davis said her district hasn’t been big on squash and pumpkin, and including dark-green vegetables, other than broccoli, may be tricky.

“Bok choy? Watercress? That’s going to be different. ¬Can you put broccoli on your menu every week as your dark green?” she said. “When we think of kids trying new vegetables, the first time they look at it. The second time they smell it. And the fourth, maybe, they eat it.”

Besides the challenge of adding new items is the required serving size, said Bob Bloomer, a regional vice president for Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality of Charlotte, N.C., which provides meals for about 470 Chicago public schools. The proposed regulations would require a minimum of one cup of fruit at breakfast for all students, only half of which may be 100 percent fruit juice. For elementary and middle school students, another half cup of fruit and a ¾-cup serving of vegetables would be offered at lunch, when high schoolers get a full cup each of fruits and vegetables.

“A cup of vegetables? No high school student is going to take a cup of vegetables,” Mr. Bloomer said. He and others worry much of the additional produce will end up in the garbage instead of students’ stomachs.

Potato Pushback

While children must be served more veggies, the proposal also says cafeterias must reduce starchy items. Potatoes, corn, green peas, and fresh lima beans—those that weren’t picked dry off the plant—would be limited to one cup total per week at lunch. Sweet potatoes aren’t considered a starchy vegetable in the proposal.

“It doesn’t make any sense at a time when you’re telling kids to consume more vegetables,” said John Keeling, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council. He said the bad rap on french fries has tainted the popular, cheap tuber, which is high in fiber and potassium and low in calories.

Many schools serve “fries” that are actually baked in the oven, he said. His organization recommends allowing four half-cup servings of spuds a week, plus a serving of another starchy vegetable, and allowing potatoes at breakfast. The School Nutrition Association goes further: They asked for four half-cup servings of potatoes a week in elementary school, and no limits on the number of days those half-cup servings are offered in middle and high school per week—as long as kids can’t take seconds and neither potatoes nor any other vegetable could be fried.

The recommendation isn’t because cutting back on potatoes isn’t impossible, said Ms. Phillips, of the SNA. In her menus in Norfolk, Va., there are weeks when potatoes aren’t offered at all. But other districts may rely more heavily on potatoes. “It goes back to where districts are currently,” she said, and “a concern ... that we do have for children. Some of their favorite vegetables are starchy vegetables. To limit them to just that to one cup a week might discourage them from eating vegetables at all.”

But Ms. Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the problem with potatoes isn’t whether they are fried or roasted.

“It’s just the variety,” she said. “If kids were eating carrots as their only vegetable at every meal, that wouldn’t be a good thing either.”

Got (Fat-Free Chocolate) Milk?

The National Dairy Council worries that chocolate milk, long the dairy king among students, may be less inviting in fat-free form. Flavored milks that are anything but fat-free wouldn’t be allowed under the new guidelines, although schools could serve unflavored milk with up to 1 percent milk-fat. “We want to make sure there are not unintended consequences,” said Ann Marie Krautheim, senior vice president of nutrition affairs of the Council, based in Rosemont, Ill. In other words, if students dislike fat-free flavored milk, they might not drink milk at all.

But in Anne Arundel, students never noticed the switch to skim chocolate and strawberry milk this school year, Ms. Risse said. To make up for the missing fat, the milk has a little more sugar and flavoring, but the district’s milk consumption is virtually unchanged.

For some districts, however, including Norfolk and Burlington, fat-free flavored milk isn’t available from the closest dairies, one reason the School Nutrition Association wants more time before the regulations take effect.

“We need to get the standards out there, let industry meet the standards, and then have time to bid those items,” Ms. Phillips said.

Districts do have 10 years to cut back on sodium. While that’s enough time for manufacturers to reformulate recipes and for districts to develop spice blends to compensate for the reduced salt, the sodium requirements are unrealistic, said the School Nutrition Association, adding that they are so low they’re less than what a hospital might serve a patient on a low-sodium diet.

“School food will taste so dramatically different from what a child would eat at home and at a restaurant that participation will drop,” Ms. Phillips said. The association endorses only the first two phases of sodium reduction, but not the final limits.

She pointed out that a cup of milk has 120 milligrams of sodium naturally, or about 1/5 of what will be allowed.

In Chicago, the district has already cut sodium to the level required in the first phase of the reductions. Mr. Bloomer said he has been hounding food manufacturers to cut sodium further in processed foods they supply to the district. And district policy doesn’t allow added salt on vegetables, to which a blend of spices is now added. Some kids haven’t been impressed.

“No matter how good a fresh vegetable is, it needs a little bit of something,” he said, which his district adds in the form of spices and herbs.

Whether it’s no-salt-added vegetables, roasted butternut squash, or fat-free chocolate milk, by far the biggest challenge for school districts will be to convince kids to eat what will be offered after all the meticulous meal planning and calorie counting.

David Just, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and co-director of the school’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, works on ways to get students to eat healthier at lunch through the placement of items, renaming foods, and other subtle measures.

“It isn’t nutrition until it’s eaten,” he said.

Vol. 30, Issue 27

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story, and the chart that accompanied it, misstated the amount of whole grains that would be required in bread products if proposed federal nutrition standards are adopted. The article should have said that, if approved, the new rules require that, in the first two years after the regulations are final, half of all bread products served in schools must be whole-grain rich, which means they contain at least 51 percent or more whole grains. After that, all grains served would have to be 51 percent or more whole grain.

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