Do The New School Food Regulations Actually Hinder Scratch-Cooking?

While I was on my break, some of you may have read about a controversial decision by the New York City Department of Education to discontinue a popular NYC school lunch program run by Wellness in the Schools (WITS).

WITS oversees “Cook for Kids,” an initiative which trains school cafeteria staff members in scratch-cooking, partners leading NYC chefs with schools, employs parent volunteers and teaches kids about healthful eating.  WITS is part of the First Lady’s “Chefs Move to Schools” planning team, so it was all the more surprising when the NYC DOE revoked authorization for the program, claiming the WITS fresh, scratch-cooked meals don’t meet the new federal school meal regulations.

Parents in WITS schools lamented the fact that their children’s improved lunches would likely revert to more processed food, a perverse result of legislation intended to improve school food overall.   Wrote one parent:

Sample [WITS] menu items include: Mediterranean baked chicken, whole grain  pasta with pesto (made with fresh basil and chick peas), vegetarian chili, and homemade flatbread pizza with fresh vegetables. All WITS schools have a fresh salad bar daily with multiple dressings made from scratch.  The kids  love it and have come to expect the healthier menu.

When the USDA announced its plans to improve the school food menu across the country we were thrilled.  So imagine our surprise when we learned that NYC  School Food would not be giving our school or ANY school, permission to  serve “real food” for the coming school year! After teaching our children the value of healthy eating, training an army of school cooks in healthy cooking techniques, and enlisting the help of hundreds of parent volunteers,  like myself, we would be returning to hamburgers (but with whole wheat  buns!), chicken nuggets, and mozzarella sticks (but with a whole wheat dinner roll!).

The good news, reported in today’s New York Times, is that WITS has now apparently assured the NYC DOE that its menus can be tweaked to meet the new regulations, and the program has been given a reprieve.  But this episode illustrates how the new school food regulations, which certainly are a net positive (more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, etc.), can also create unintended negative consequences in schools already ahead of the curve in providing healthful school food.

That topic is discussed in-depth in school food reformer Dana Woldow’s recent interview of Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch.  Choicelunch is a California school food caterer supplying healthful meals to over 250 schools, most of which are affluent enough to operate outside the National School Lunch Program.  But in those districts in which the company does operate under the NSLP, Justin explains how the new school food regulations can tie the hands of schools wanting to offer students the sort of appealing variety likely to attract fully paying customers (thus bringing more money into the program), and not just those students who are economically dependent on the school meal.

And when it comes to scratch-cooking, the gold standard for school meals in the minds of many parents, Justin thinks the new school meal standards may actually encourage more reliance on processed food.

Under the old regulations, schools could plan their menus with either a “food based” approach (which looks at the categories of food served at each meal) or using the “nutrient standard” method (which let schools tally up overall nutrients served).  I greatly disliked the nutrient standard method, formerly used by my district, because it seemed to create an odd “nutritionism” approach —  as when Houston kids were actually required to take a package of animal crackers every morning at breakfast for the iron contained in the fortified flour.  That’s why I was happy that the new regulations abandon the nutrient standard method, but Justin feels that the food based planning system may actually hamper scratch cooking:

Big manufacturers of school foods have always benefited the most from the regulations. Even with the old regs, a scratch-cooking district with lots of choice on their menu had to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to even write a menu that complied, let alone document their production process sufficiently. At least in the old system you could fall back on nutrient standard menu planning and load in all of your recipes and click a button and see “Did I make it? Yes or no?” Now you don’t even have that option [because the new regs require a different standard called food based menu planning.]

Contrast that to “big food” who can grind up chicken, pump it full of soy filler, bread it and form it in the shape of a perfect 1oz dino nugget and put a CN label on it. And the knockout punch is that they can often do all of that for cheaper than a district can make a meal using raw chicken (not to mention the food safety implications of handling raw poultry have most districts so scared that very few will even do it).

If you’re a cash strapped district, are you really going to put all of the effort and headache into a scratch program when it’s so cumbersome to run, and food brokers are banging down your door with solutions that are cheaper and easier, and designed to check all of the boxes? The answer was “no” even before the new regs, so I can’t see how adding complexity to the regulations is going to lead to a wave of scratch cooking in our schools.

I do agree that, even apart from the intricacies of the new regulations, in districts fortunate enough to have the assistance of groups like WITS in New York City, or with affluent populations able to pay higher meal prices, better food is more achievable.   And for the majority of districts struggling to meet the new school food standards with inadequate funding and labor, the highly processed, lower priced, heat-and-eat entree will continue to remain an alluring option.

If you’re a school food professional, I’d love to get your thoughts, too.  Comments may be left anonymously.

[Thanks to Susan Tang of Little Ladies Who Lunch for keeping me posted on WITS developments as they unfolded.]

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  1. crystal cazares says

    I am a new mom that lives in the Houston area. I thank you so much for your support of good food in our schools. I know there are many people supporting this, but I am glad there is someone in this area doing it, so that when my baby gets into school maybe things will have improved a bit. I plan on packing my daughters lunch as my mom packed my lunch all the years I went to school, no matter how busy she was. It is nice that kids are learning cooking skills and things like where food comes from. I grew up under a master chief, so I have been cooking sence I was old enough to stir a pot. When we found out we were pregnant I told my husband I was going to teach my child (boy or girl) to cook things for themselves. I want to encourage you to keep up the fight. No more apples from China that are grown with contaminates when we have lots of apples here. No more HCS in everything my child touches. I’m starting my childs life out right, my schools need to help continue that fight.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Welcome to TLT, Crystal, and thank you for your supportive words. School food here in Houston is definitely improving and maybe things will have changed even more when your baby reaches elementary school. But I continue to pack my kids’ lunches, too, mostly because they prefer it but also because I want to avoid many of the ingredients in the more processed foods served in HISD. Thanks for coming by and I hope you’ll continue to be a part of TLT!

  2. Maggie says

    New regulations…where shall I even start?

    I’m not sure I agree totally that the previous food based planning regulations made it hard to cook from scratch. Justin mentions cost, which I think will always be a concern, old regulations or new.

    The very specific requirements of the new regulations in regard to the bread and grain servings and the specific vegetable sub-groups and the age/grade groupings make it interesting. It will take time (which means money, right?) for someone in a district to create, update and analyze recipes (if a district has scratch recipes now) to see how they fit into the bread/grain and vegetable sub-group requirements and fit into the age/grade groups.

    If a district has multiple choices offered daily, it is even more complex.

    I don’t want to claim it is not going to work. It’s a big change. Right now, it can be hard to see how it’s going to work and menu planning is taking extra time. I hope it won’t take long to feel like it is understandable and decent to work with. There are a few specifics of the regulations that I think are odd and difficult to work with…but that’s another discussion.

    Old or new regulations, I’ll continue to feel that funding and support (to get the funding) is what’s needed for scratch cooking. It’s going to take money to pay to hire people with the ability to cook, additional people to do the cooking (you’re moving the “manufacture” of the food from a super-efficient factory to a small hand-made situation), money for equipment to do the cooking/manufacturing…assuming there’s even space and supporting infrastructure to make those kind of additions of people and equipment.

    • says

      @Maggie – it’s about more than just taking more time. We menu 16 entree choices/day. Why do we do that? Because the majority of our customers are full paying customers, and they know exactly what their children want. We have a very diverse customer base, and therefore a very diverse menu on a daily basis. It’s not just more costly, and more than just a little more complex with multiple choices offered daily…and nearly flat-out unworkable.

      The min/mix is what is really ridiculous. You can’t even menu a simple turkcy sandwich with fresh roated turkey on whole grain bread daily because the bread will equate to 10 servings of grain fo the week.

      Let me ask you this – how successful would a cafeteria be in a business park if all of the employees had only one entree choice? And on top of that, the entree on the menu drove exactly what side dishes were on the menu? And what was on the menu the prior day drove the next day, and the day after that? What would most people do? Most of them would either bring lunch from home or leave the office to get lunch elsewhere. This is the same thing that is happening at schools! Schools will NEVER increase participation significantly among paid students so long as the regulations are so cumbersome and choice is dramatically limited by complexity.

      My response to the regs is not simply coming from the perspective of “it’s going to take me a while to get used to them but eventually they’ll be workable.” The USDA missed – flat out – when the tried to implement such tight regs with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

      You are right that scratch cooking will cost more money. But cooking real food is about more than just money. It’s also about allow the chefs and foodservice staff to REALLY COOK and letting them spend their time behind the stove and not scratching their head trying to get a menu to pencil with these ridiculous regulations.

      • Maggie says

        Justin, I do get that, I do. I guess I’m coming at it from the perspective of doing my best to remain as positive as I can – since I can’t change the regulations! I’ve got to work with them. I hear you 100% and I have the same thoughts/fears…I do indeed hope that the participation won’t drop because of those reasons you outline.

        You are right, the time invested in paperwork & documentation is crazy, but, again, what can a school do? We’ve got to do it, and spend time/wages on that paper work instead of cooking.

        I think originally the point was if the new regulations made it even harder to cook from scratch…yes and no. It was hard before and now even more time is taken up by level of precision planning, recipe analysis & record keeping needed. I’d personally love to have the financial and creative freedom to make menus like your company serves!

        The idea is good. Eating more healthfully….how can that be bad? The specifics are looking tough to deal with. But, like I said, what do I do for now, other than do the best we can? Try to promote, explain, educate and keep on going!

        • says

          You have a great positive outlook on this, Maggie. And I know you’re with me on just how frustrating it is to see the good intentions of the reg changes become obstructed in the execution. If you’re running a program that has one, or MAYBE two lunch options per day, then yes – the paperwork is greater but it’s possible to make it work with a little more effort. But if you don’t into the USDA’s little box, and system completely breaks down.

          I’m frustrated with the fact that people who have no idea what they are talking about are buzzing around the Twittosphere and media applauding these regulation changes as a great win for school lunch, and not even listening to the very valid and very real obstacles that the regulations impose. Yes, we do have the financial and creative freedom to develop great menus. But that only makes it even MORE frustrating when you have to make ridiculous changes to try and stay in compliance. We do have a several districts on the NSLP, and most of them, admittedly, are in more affluent areas with none more than 10% of the students qualifying for free & reduced meals. And so in order to be compliant for those 10% or less, which we sell at a deeply discounted rate to the school, the 90%+ of parents are looking at us and saying, “What in the hell are you doing? The program was great to begin with! Why are you screwing with it?” The answer is “because the USDA is making us.” It’s the tail wagging the dog.

          The devil is always in the details. There is nothing wrong or bad with the intent of the regulations. But in typical Washington fashion, they totally screwed it up when they used the regulation not as a framework for providing guidelines, but rather as a pulpit to micro-manage the implementation of the solution. And my distaste for these regs is not because I’m a promoter of the status quo and Big Food – I’m quite the opposite, actually. Just because I’m in agreement with the White House and the USDA on the need to improve school food does not mean I agree with the pile of revised regs with conflicting requirements that they just dropped on my desk.

          And parading kids and chefs through the White House and trumpeting the changes through media channels that don’t know any better than to laud them is not helping get better food in schools.

          I wish I could share in your optimism and positive frame of mind. I think I’ve just spent too long mired in the ridiculousness of these details and I’ve seen just how far off they are from what the American parent actually wants for their kids (and, in the communites that have the means to do so, is willing to pay for).

          • Maggie says

            Ah, but if I complain too much I’m just a crabby, lazy lunch lady who just wants to complain and should be kicked to the curb to get somebody in there who knows how to deal with cooking & could do amazing things. 😉

            Due to space and time constraints we do (in the elementary schools – high and middle have more) offer mainly just one choice. I offer/offered a very simple second main dish choice (a pre-packaged salad) and even that is causing me some issues on account of that 8 to 9 ounce equivalents of bread per week rule. 1 or 1/2 servings of bread included with the salad, not enough. 2 servings, too much. 1.75…ah, just right! So, now to find a bread item that equals 1.75 bread servings. Yes, frustrating.

            It even reminds me a bit of the nutrient based planning, where a person was looking to fill a slot with a specific nutrient. We’ve always done food based, but now I need to think “OK, I need a dark green vegetable or a red/orange vegetable or whatever” instead of thinking about what taste or texture or color or such would compliment the other menu items.

            Still, yes, I’m going to try to make the best of it. Of course, school hasn’t even started here yet. It will be interesting to hear and see parent and student response, if any.

            I agree that it is not always easy to find educated discussion out there. Appreciate Bettina’s blog for a space for actual conversation!

          • DensityDuck says

            ” I’ve seen just how far off they are from what the American parent actually wants for their kids (and, in the communites that have the means to do so, is willing to pay for).”

            Well, but there, as it were, is the rub. You’re thinking that you’re a devoted parent who’s investing in their child’s health (exactly like we’re supposed to be doing, right?) but to the bureaucrats who make these regulations, you’re just some whiny rich fool who wants to have everything Their Own Special Way, who hates the thought of their Precious Angel having to eat the same food as those dirty inner-city kids.

            Their job is not to cater to the whims of every individual citizen; their job is to make sure that the maximum number of kids get the maximum amount of nutrition. And this has to be something that any conceivable government employee can do; not just the food enthusiast who got a job at DHS, but the cousin of another department’s director’s sister who’s such a noodle-brain that she can’t add two numbers together and get the same answer twice in a row. You have to have rigidly-followed procedures, and number-higher-than-this-line requirements, and definable quantities of measurable deliverables. And if that means the only thing kids are served is chicken nuggets with vitamin soup, then that’s what it means.

  3. Jamie says

    I am in the middle of relocating to a new city. This city is big on Farmer’s markets and it seems like, compared to where I live now, a lot of people are interested in eating “real food.” Unfortunately, I was disappointed when I saw the menu to my daughters school. I don’t see any improvement in the school lunches. They do have a lot of fruits and veggies offered with the meal, but the main course seems to be lacking. This month they are serving both chicken nuggets and corn dogs. I think the chicken nuggets are on the menu more than once. I will just have to keep packing my daughters lunch. I am impressed with the snack menu at my son’s daycare, however. They serve organic milk daily and have lots of fruits and veggies.

  4. says

    Sara from the School Food Tour – hope you’re well, Bettina!

    Finished my ride and am now working in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Food Service director here had to revert to canned veggies for the first time in nearly a decade due to new regs. She’s taking major steps backwards. The standards are so well intended but implementation is frustrating. This will be a learning process for everyone!


  5. says

    Thank you for the excellent post.

    I am a parent of two school-aged daughters and also happen to write a food blog, so food is an important part of our everyday lives.

    Two weeks ago, I received a copy of the lunch menu for August and was blown away. It was EXACTLY what you posted- hot dogs, hamburgers (on wheat buns) and pizza (because pizza is a vegetable now, right?). I was blown away.

    I immediately emailed the school principal to express my disappointment with what was being offered. She completely understood my frustration and said that the new requirements for the National School Lunch Program were making it next to impossible for our cafeteria manager to create new menu items. We talked for quite some time about the regulations and I was perplexed at how these rules were enacted to begin with.

    The school we attend is a small, private religious based school with about 350 students. About 10% are on the free/reduced lunch program. Since we aren’t a big public school with tons of resources, we have had to figure out ways to stretch an already thin budget even more. It’s almost impossible. We just don’t have the resources to make it work -so for now we are stuck with this crappy food being served to all our children. Our other option is to look at raising the prices AND hiring an outside third-party company to serve – but we don’t even know if we can afford to do that.

  6. jsnice dtuhlmacher says

    ustin gagnon you hit the nail right on the head I am a high school cafeteria manager and could not have said it any better

  7. Beverly says

    The problem with “scratch cooking” in schools is it becomes politicized cooking that ignores nutritional standards. Parents’ and administrators’ foodie agendas take precedence over basic nutrition science and ignore food safety practices if they are inconvenient or expensive. Simply put, schools can’t be trusted to get it right for the kids because the kids are the last thing they concern themselves with after teachers unions, administrative organizational charts, bus garage projects, etc., etc., and oddball foodie notions. Kids get shafted every time.

    • says

      You make a good point that scratch cooking can’t just be willy-nilly let’s-make-whatever-we-want-however-we-want. PARTICULARLY when it comes to food safety and handling of raw proteins. But it’s really scary to say that schools can’t be trusted to get it right cooking from scratch, because the alternative there is that the food manufacturers CAN be trusted.

      Admittedly though, the only way we are able to have the expertise we do on scratch cooking is because we have been doing it for years and service 250+ schools. We have the size to support expertise in food safety, menu planning, recipe development, and ingredient sourcing. If I managed a single school or small district, it would be a much different ballgame and the resources available to me would be greatly lessened.


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