Student Well-Being

School Lunch Rules Bent to Allow More Grain, Protein—But Not Calories

By Nirvi Shah — December 10, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Caps on the amount of grain and protein in school meals—put in place just this school year—have been lifted for now.

In a letter Friday to Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that because schools have found limits on servings of grains and proteins “the top operational challenge” of new school meal requirements, schools don’t have to follow them for the rest of the school year.

The rules, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture was authorized to write thanks to 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, limited schools’ ability to serve as much of what they wanted. For example, elementary schools that wanted to serve sandwiches every day could not because they would exceed caps on how many servings of grains students may have per week. Serving cheeseburgers every day would also be problematic because the cheese, a meat alternative and a source of protein, could lead schools to exceed caps, too.

“To help schools make a successful transition to the new requirements, we have provided additional flexibility in meeting the requirements for these components,” Vilsack wrote. “If a school is meeting just the minimum serving requirements for these two food groups, they will be considered in compliance with that portion of the standards, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximum.”

The USDA finalized nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches in January, and they took effect at the start of the 2012-13 school year. The new rules boost the amount of fruits and vegetables students must be served, require bread products to contain whole grains, limit milk to low-fat and fat-free varieties, cut sodium and fat, and for the first time, set both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for meals.

Once the school year began, criticism about the new rules quickly followed, with students complaining the new meals were too small. Earlier, Vilsack had said for students who are particularly active and require more calories—only a small percentage of public school students—they could buy additional food from a la carte lunch lines, bring additional food from home, or parents and other groups could supplement meals subsidized by federal tax dollars.

“This should come as no surprise,” Vilsack wrote in Friday’s letter, “students never have and never will get all of their daily dietary needs from a single meal. School breakfasts and lunches are designed to meet roughly one-fourth and one-third, respectively, of the daily calorie needs of children.”

On Saturday, Hoeven said he and other lawmakers will continue to push for the caps on grain and protein servings to be made permanent.

Vilsack was responding to a letter from Hoeven, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Arkansas, and other senators from agricultural states: James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma; Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota; Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming; John Tester, D-Montana; John Thune, R-South Dakota; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Jerry Moran, R-Kansas; Dan Coates, R-Indiana; and Tim Johnson, D-South Dakota.

In a press release, Hoeven said he and other senators felt the new rule “adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, leaving some students hungry and some school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements. ... Moreover, [districts] said it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.”

The School Nutrition Association welcomed the shift, said its president, Sandra Ford, noting the difficulty schools have faced in planning meals under the new requirements.

“School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu-planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements. USDA’s new guidance acknowledges those challenges and gives school meal programs more flexibility,” she said. “By easing weekly maximums for grains and proteins but maintaining calorie limits, USDA protects the nutritional integrity of the new standards while giving school meal programs more time to design healthy menus that meet both the new standards and students’ tastes.”

An adjustment period as the new rules take effect was to be expected, said Erik Olson, the director of food programs for the Pew Health Group. School meal rules hadn’t changed since 1995.

“We’re not surprised that there have been some challenges in implementation here,” he said, and the adjustment shows that USDA is listening to schools. And with more flexibility, school lunches may be more appealing to some students, encouraging them to eat them.

Now, however, it’s time for the agency to stop dragging its feet on regulating another aspect of school food: what’s sold in school vending machines, a la carte lines, and in school stores. USDA has this power, but has said for months it needs more time to devise proposed rules.

“The department really needs to move forward with the rest of the package to make sure snack foods are also covered,” Olson said. “All food needs to be healthful.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion What 9/11 Can Teach Us Today
We can only guess at what weighs on other people. Hurts and wounds are not always visible on the outside.
Pamela Cantor
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Opinion Educators, Be Future-Ready, But Don’t Ignore the Present
Being ready for what lies ahead is important, but we also need to gain a better understanding of the here and now.
5 min read
shutterstock 226918177
Student Well-Being Opinion How to Prioritize Student Well-Being This Year
Use the Student Thriving Index to find out where your kids stand. Because you cannot manage what you cannot measure.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Supporting Teachers & Students
In this Spotlight, evaluate your district and what supports your schools offer, assess attendance policies to avoid burnout, and more