Student Well-Being

School-Meals Makeover Stirs the Pot

April 05, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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.
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Corrected: 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.

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 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 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.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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.”

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 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.

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.

Lunch Letters

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

BRIC ARCHIVE

BRIC ARCHIVE

“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.

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.

“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.

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,” 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.

“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 would be limited to one cup total per week at lunch.

“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.

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 National Dairy Council worries that another popular item, chocolate milk, 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. The fear is that students 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.

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.

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.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as School-Meals Makeover Stirs the Pot

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