{food for thought} New Federal Standards for School Lunch Official

January 25, 2012

School Lunch

The Obama administration announced today final changes to the federal school lunch program which feeds roughly 32 million children each school day. These are the first changes made to the program in fifteen years. Though marked by compromise—yes, pizza still counts as a vegetable—the updated standards are expected make marked improvements on the nutritional quality of lunches served in school cafeterias around the country.

Some significant changes, which are expected to phase in over the next three years beginning with the 2012-13 school year, include caloric minimums and maximums, limits on saturated and trans fats, a choice between non-fat milk that can be flavored or unflavored 1% milk, dramatic cuts in sodium, and requirements on the amounts of dark green vegetables, red/orange vegetables, legumes and starchy vegetables that students must be offered. Students will be offered both fruits and vegetables every day for the first time (they choose whether they want to take either and at what portion) and soon schools will offer only whole-grain products. They will also be able to use tofu as a substitute for meat.

Despite the pizza ridiculousness (which has been addressed to some degree—pizza must be made with less salt, whole wheat crust and be accompanied by another vegetable) and the fact that french fries still make the cut (winning approval from the National Potato Council!), the new guidelines have been praised as a meaningful step by both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Here is a sample menu makeover for you to see for yourself the kinds of changes that these new guidelines are supposed to bring.

As always, I’m torn. I accept that change, especially at the federal level, happens incrementally, if not glacially slow. But—on principle more than anything—the pizza-as-a-vegetable thing is so absurd. Despite it being a relatively small concession at the end of the day, it’s so perfectly representative of how the system gets in the way of real change that really matters. That said, the changes are pretty substantive and there’s a lot to be said for that. Used correctly, the new standards can be used to make healthy lunches. Fingers crossed.

Also as always, I’m eager to see what Marion Nestle has to say on the matter. Hop on over to her blog Food Politics—hopefully she’ll have posted about the issue by the time you get there. She’s brilliant, understands the issue deeply and from multiple perspectives and can always get right to the hear of the issue in just a few short paragraphs (unlike some of us!).

What do you think of the school lunch changes: do they go far enough? Will they change how you’ll feed your child lunch during the school week?

5 Responses

  1. Danielle says:

    Although I could never convince my child to eat a school lunch, I would hope for improvement. But if “used correctly” as you hopefully pointed out, if the key. I just had a convo with my Jr. High daughter how she was laughing about the salad being three uncut large pieces of iceburg lettuce, dried out carrots, and an over proportionate amount of ranch. “How is this better than pizza?” she asks. The biggest issue is that in our school district Clark County, 5th largest in the country, they have cut and cut and cut the budget so tightly that we have beautiful salad bar serving contraptions, but no employees to serve, prep, or set-up. I can’t see this happening to fufill it’s vision even within three years. I’d like to see more education offered to parents in providing healthy lunches, (heck, even provide workshop to help them). That would be providing more educational nutrients than any leafy green could.

  2. Jenne says:

    I am glad to see these changes for my daughter. My boys suffered through the food. Now, they go to a school in which they bring their lunch and I am constantly looking for cold menu items for them. They don’t like waiting in line for the microwave and I don’t believe microwave food is all that healthy anyway. Oh and I can’t wait to pick these up for them for lunches 🙂 http://www.black-blum.com/products/box-appetit/

  3. One Hungry Mama says:

    Thanks, ladies.

    Danielle, your daughter is smart. When McDonald’s can make oatmeal—their “healthy” breakfast option—that contains more sugar than a Snickers bar (this is real!), it becomes important to remember that we have to be careful about what we consider and accept as healthy. Just because it’s salad doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I said “fingers crossed” because, like you, I’m skeptical. It takes the some resource and a whole lot of education to shift the mindset about school lunch to be able to use new guidelines in the way they are intended—to actually make better lunches. Time will tell, I guess.

    Jenne, I’ve seen those lunch containers before. They look so cool! Report back on how they are to use if you end up trying them out!

  4. Lisa VanBrackle says:

    Who is going to pay the up charge for all of these wonderful changes? I find it funny that so many people can yak and complain about school lunches but don’t want to pay very much for their child to purchase one, yet demand that it be organic, nutritionally superior to anything they would bother to serve at home and not require more help in the cafeteria to bring it to pass. One meal a day, 180 days a year is not the root of the obesity or health issues in our younger population. Maybe it’s time we stop blaming everybody else for fat kids and start taking a look at the other two meals plus snacks the kids are eating at home 365 days a year and the lack of exercise. Do all you want and let the government creep into your daily life even more, but trust me, this is not going to solve the obesity issue.

  5. Sara says:

    I know this is waaay later than this post but I actually had to write a research paper on the subject of preventative care and childhood obesity and this topic came up. While I did not reference your site I did enjoy reading your post. I agree that most people are all talk; they want better food choices but don’t want to pay for it. But in response to Lisa VanBrackle, nobody mentioned organic food, I think we are just hoping for palatable vegetables, perhaps with a vinnegarette instead of heavy ranch. Your point is valid in that everyone complains about raising taxes etc., but how else will we see changes? Nobody here said they were against taxes. Unfortunately schools also tend to be one of the first things to be cut. I will also add that the pizza as a veg thing, while appalling, is because that pizza sauce has tomatoes in it which has lycopene which is an essential nutrient.Think of children in a low socioeconomic status who may not have much other access to tomatoes — sad but true! Far, far from good, but I know compromises had to be made on this act (I read it) in part in response to comments from the public and in part in response to government groups that did not want to pay for it.

    Another change I would LOVE to see that would likely contribute to decreased obesity(and has in some states that have implemented it) — recess, exercise, play time! States that saw a decrease in childhood obesity put in a range of measures, not just one, and it was not one thing that worked for everyone; their changes were diverse but broad, and Philly was most successful (also most successful in reaching areas of minority and lower socioeconomic groups). What that means is that broad changes need to be made in more states!Probably not happening in Georgia anytime soon, but a girl can dream…

    Thanks for writing!

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