Good News for School Food: USDA Suspends Problematic Grain and Protein Caps

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 11, 2012

I’m emerging from my blogging vacation to share some big news in school food.

The USDA has just announced that, at least for the remainder of this school year, it is no longer requiring that districts comply with the weekly caps on grain and protein servings instituted this fall as part of the agency’s school meal pattern overhaul.

You may recall that these caps were causing food service directors all sorts of unforeseen problems.   Dana Woldow, school food reformer in San Francisco USD, wrote a great article showing how the grain and protein limits impeded serving even healthy choices like soups and sandwiches.  Justin Gagnon of Choicelunch wrote here that the caps discouraged scratch cooking in favor of processed foods and TLT’s anonymous school food professional, Wilmafelt that the caps gave food service directors an incentive to build “empty calories” into their menus.   And, of course, it was these caps that led, in part, to widespread student complaints that portion sizes were too small to satisfy their hunger.

I’m told that food service directors are thrilled with this development but major food manufacturers, which scrambled to reformulate their products to meet the new regulations, are not so happy.  No word yet on whether the suspension of these caps will continue next year.

One question that arises, though, is the degree to which all districts can really take advantage of this reprieve.  Here in Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest district, purchasing and menu planning take place several months in advance.  It may be impossible for HISD to change course in a meaningful way at this point, and I’m guessing that may well be true for other large, urban districts around the country.

If you’re a school food professional and have feedback on the USDA announcement, please feel free to share it in a comment below.

[Thanks to TLT's anonymous school food professional, Wilma, for her behind-the-scenes insights on this development.]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Woldow December 11, 2012 at 11:23 am

I had exactly the same reaction re whether this rethink on the part of the USDA might be coming too late to help many school districts. Commodity orders are typically placed in the spring; school meal planners who believed they would be limited in the amount of meat and grain they could serve may only have order enough meat (which is practically free if delivered as raw meat, not as processed nuggets or taco filling) to comply with the limits. Food budgets are pretty much already alotted for the current year, I suspect, so buying more meat now could be tricky.

The real benefit will come, IMHO, if/when the USDA eliminates the maximum serving cap for next year and all subsequent years. The relatively high price of meat (even when using “free” commodity dollars, meat gobbles up those dollars faster than if they were spent on beans) and the still-in-place calorie limit on meals together should provide a kind of naturally-occuring cap on how much meat is likely to appear in a school meal.

As for grains, now that schools must move toward whole grains, is it really necessary to have a cap? The time for that was back when all of the grains were refined – white rice, white pasta, white bread and pizza dough. Now if the USDA would just mandate ALL whole grains, rather than “whole grain rich” (which means 51% whole grains.)

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Sophie December 11, 2012 at 1:28 pm

You raise a great point, Bettina, in terms of how quickly the school districts can make the reversal. Honestly, if most districts are in the same position as we are at Choicelunch, vendors have promised a lot, but we haven’t seen anything new. We DID spend months changing our recipes, writing the portions, training our 100+ culinary staff, so in terms of work, it is hard to calculate how much that has taken out of any school food service that tries its best to cook from scratch. At the end of the day, though, you will only here from praise from me. (And maybe an “I told you SOOO!” under my breadth :)

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LindaSue December 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm

We are still continuing as usual. We have tried to change things around to comply and it does not make sense to go back and change again. Its a very difficult balancing act in planning a menu.

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Kathryn Henderson, Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity December 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Great post and welcome back! We understand that the grain and meat limits have caused particular difficulties with planning school lunch menus; the USDA is to be commended for rethinking standards that may stand in the way of providing a healthy meal. We hope that schools will continue to encourage their students to eat the fruit and vegetable components of the meal, as American children are not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables and already are consuming more than adequate amounts of meat and grains.

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Maggie December 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm

We aren’t planning to make any changes at the elementary level, but will try to increase the protein/meat serving sizes and grain (bun) sizes at high schools. Hopefully will regain some positive thoughts from customers and hunger satisfaction.

It will help some at the elementary level…sometimes it was crazy to get everything almost into place and then realize something like offering a choice (like a choice of hard or soft shell taco) would mean that the week was over or under by a half or quarter of a bread serving.

By the way – do get well. I miss the sane interaction & discussion found here, but certainly understand life has other demands. Take care!

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