Student Well-Being

USDA Rules Give School Meals a Healthy Makeover

By Nirvi Shah — January 31, 2012 4 min read
First lady Michelle Obama takes her seat as she has lunch with school children at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.
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Over the next few years, school breakfasts and lunches will undergo their first metamorphosis in a generation—the result of new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that say they must contain more fruits and vegetables, less salt, less fat, and more whole grains.

The changes, issued by the USDA last week, were applauded by celebrity chefs, the first lady, and child-health advocates. The new requirements, triggered by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, will affect the daily eating habits of the 32 million students who eat school-supplied meals, many of whom get more than half their daily caloric intake from school meals.

“When we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing at home, the last thing we want is for things to be undone at school,” first lady Michelle Obama said at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. She was on hand to promote the new requirements and eat a lunch of turkey tacos, brown rice, fresh fruit, and milk—a meal that meets the new standards—with 2nd and 4th graders.

The standards are the first update to school breakfast and lunch requirements in more than 15 years. (“School-Meals Makeover Stirs the Pot,” Apr. 6, 2011.)

Among the changes required by the new standards:

• Students must get double the amount of fruits and vegetables as in the past.

• All grain products served must eventually be whole-grain rich—meaning they are made with 51 percent whole grains.

• All milk offered must be low-fat or fat-free.

• The amount of sodium in meals will be limited.

First lady Michelle Obama holds a school lunch that meets new federal nutrition standards at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., last week. Mrs. Obama ate lunch at the school to help draw attention to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new regulations for school meals.

• There are minimum and maximum calories allowed in meals.

Just how different will meals look? In one USDA example, a school lunch of a bean and cheese burrito with an ounce of mozzarella cheese, a side of apple sauce, a cup of orange juice, and a serving of 2 percent milk would become a turkey sub with half as much low-fat cheese on a whole-wheat roll, sides of refried beans, one-quarter-cup servings of jicama and green peppers, one-half cup of cantaloupe wedges, and skim milk.

Potato Picking

Over the year between the proposed changes and the final rules, many pieces of the requirements changed , either because of USDA consideration of some of the 130,000 public comments the department received or because of congressional action.

School officials said it would be too expensive to serve meat or a meat alternative at breakfast every day, and the USDA eliminated that requirement.

Ambitious requirements to cut sodium over the next 10 years were scaled back. Schools will have to cut sodium at lunch to roughly 1,000 milligrams by the 2017-18 school year, but they won’t have to reduce it more until the USDA further evaluates the proposal.

And schools will have until the 2014-15 school year to incorporate a cup of fruit into every breakfast served.

Although the USDA wanted to end counting tomato paste, including the sauce on a slice of pizza, as a serving of vegetables, Congress squelched that idea.

The agency also wanted to cut back on starchy vegetables, including white potatoes and corn, but as part of the agriculture appropriations bill, Congress barred the USDA from spending money to limit those vegetables.

The Agriculture Department targeted potatoes, in particular, because it was recommended by the Institute of Medicine, which provided guidelines that were the basis for the new meal standards, and because children already eat a lot of potatoes outside of school.

The agency did limit potatoes to an extent, however. Because vegetables will be allowed as a substitute for fruit at breakfast, the USDA said schools must reach for dark-green, red, or orange vegetables, beans, or peas as substitutes for fruit before turning to other veggies, including starches.

Despite the bigger congressional victory, the National Potato Council was upset.

“The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet USDA’s nutrition, caloric, fat, and sodium requirements,” said John Keeling, the executive vice president of the Washington-based group.

Costs Reduced

One side effect of the many changes incorporated into the final meal standards is that the projected cost of putting the new rules into effect was cut back drastically, from about $6.8 billion to $3.2 billion over five years.

While health and nutrition advocates didn’t get everything they hoped for, many were still elated by the changes.

“The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said Margo Wootan, the nutrition-policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. “They’re much needed, given high childhood-obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”

And Mrs. Obama said the improved meals, beyond their health benefits, would help students’ academic performance.

“Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high,” she said, “or when they’re hungry.”

Districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, that have incorporated some of the changes found students aren’t fans of the new meals.

Endorsement of the changes at home will help keep students’ minds open to the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables students are likely to see in the coming years, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, in Oxon Hill, Md.

“Kids are much more likely to pick up a fruit or vegetable in the lunch line if they’ve been introduced to it at home.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rules Aim to Make School Meals Healthier

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