New USDA School Food Standards: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 26, 2012

Yesterday First Lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, released the final federal nutrition standards for school meals, representing the first major overhaul of school food requirements in over 15 years.

As with most products of the legislative process, the end result is messy and flawed but not without redeeming value.  Here’s my bullet point summary of the best and worst aspects of the new regulations:

THE GOOD

While you may read a lot of carping in the blogosphere about where the new regulations fall short — they still allow chocolate milk, for example, which displeases those who oppose the beverage, and pizza is still a vegetable (more on that below) —  in reality there is much to be happy about.  Here are the positive highlights:

Abolition of “Nutrient Standard Menu Planning”  

This is a wonky, in-the-weeds aspect of the new regulations that you’ll likely hear little about in the mainstream press, but from my perspective it might be the single most important improvement to school meals.

Here’s the background.  Under prior regulations, schools could choose to meet USDA nutritional requirements using either a “food based” or a “nutrient standard” approach to their menu planning.  The former method is pretty much what it sounds like: districts had to serve a certain number of items from the basic food groups (breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats and meat substitutes, etc.), the same way most humans approach the task of putting together a balanced meal.

But under the “nutrient standard” system (used by my own school district, Houston ISD, and many others), districts could focus instead only on whether individual nutrient requirements were being satisfied, regardless of where those nutrients came from.  This myopic, “nutritionism” approach led to some truly bizarre results, like the regular inclusion of animal crackers (aka, cookies) in our school breakfast program, added to meet the USDA iron requirement via their fortified white flour.  (My discovery of this particular practice — and my resulting confusion and anger about it — is actually what led me to start this blog in the first place.)

Despite the fact that “some school advocacy organizations, trade associations, food manufacturers, nutritionists, and other commenters suggested that NSMP [Nutrient Standard Menu Planning] be allowed as an option,” (and, by the way, is it any surprise that food manufacturers loved this approach?), USDA did the right thing and abolished it for good.

Sensible Caloric Requirements

The National School Lunch Program was started at a time when childhood malnutrition, not obesity, was the concern du jour.  As a result, for decades districts have struggled to meet calorie minimums (you read that right – minimums) while not exceeding limits on fat.  The result was the inclusion of lots of sugar in school meals, often in the form of multiple-times-a-week, or even daily, desserts and sometimes sugary beverages.

For example, someone in HISD told me informally that one motivation for serving this bright blue and red concoction at our high schools is to help meet the old federal caloric requirements:

Liquid calories.

The new regulations bring caloric requirements down, a common sense move in an age of childhood obesity.

Improved Nutrition

And now for the purely nutritional improvements you’ve probably already read about:  schools are going to be required to offer students fruits and vegetables every day, including a wider variety of produce that includes yellow and green leafy vegetables; the amount of whole-grain-rich foods will be increased; only fat-free or low-fat milk will be offered; and the rules reflect an increased focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

THE BAD

So, what’s wrong with requiring schools to provide better, healthier food?  Nothing.  But what is bad is that these regulations are an unfunded mandate;  the Congressional funding increase provided to school districts – a mere six cents more per free meal — is woefully inadequate to pay for the better food.  (For more on the funding issue, check out school food reformer Dana Woldow‘s excellent piece on how the new nutrition requirements will effectively force many districts, especially those in which labor and food costs are high, to start (or continue) dipping into classroom funds to pay for school meals.)   While other countries pay far more for their school food programs — no doubt recognizing the long term benefits of such an investment — the United States continues to lag woefully behind in this regard.

THE UGLY  

As these regulations were hammered out, nothing was more disheartening than watching as our elected representatives — from both parties, by the way —  cave in like cheap suitcases in the face of Big Food’s lobbying efforts.

The USDA, at the behest of Congress, sought recommendations from the Institute of Medicine on how to bring school food standards into alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  But after the IOM recommendations were released, Congress backpedalled furiously when the food industry asked it to.  So when potato growers objected to limits on servings of starchy vegetables, that idea was tossed.  And frozen food manufacturers, long benefitting from a quirk in the old rules that treated pizza as a “vegetable” (due to its tomato paste), fought successfully to maintain this counterintuitive status quo.

For those of us who care deeply about kids and nutrition, episodes like these were ugly indeed.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Are the new school food standards ideal?  No.  Are districts being given enough money to really get the job done?  No, again.  But do we have some cause for celebration?  Absolutely.  Initial, positive reactions from several leading nutrition advocates are here, and I’ll share with you more responses, positive and negative, as they come in.

 [Ed Update:  TLT Reader Casey Legler Hinds shared with me on TLT’s Facebook page this excellent USDA chart which allows a quick comparison of the old and new rules.  Thanks Casey!]

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

shira January 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

What’s the timeline? Are there deadlines set for districts to get in line with all the new guidelines – or will their be loopholes that districts can wiggle through due to lack of funding?

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Shira: Sorry for the incredibly belated reply! These regs go into effect as of the next school year (’12-’13).

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Brad January 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Excellent summary. The congressional meddling is particularly galling.

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Green with NV January 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I agree. Great synopsis. Truly horrifying that government can continue to institute these programs with minimal (if any) additional funding.

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Sofia H. January 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thanks so much for the breakdown!

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eila / full plate January 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Bettina, I always know I can come to you when I need a great summary!! Thanks for putting this together. Really appreciate it. – Eila

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Casey January 27, 2012 at 10:36 am

You’re welcome and all the credit goes to Marion Nestle who included it on her blog!

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Paula January 31, 2012 at 5:23 am

The true shame that while their intervention has good intensions where is the other side … the exercise session? the “gym classes”
Way Way back when I was a kid – President Kennedy had a program called the President’s Fitness Achievement Program (or something like that) you had a series of movement requirements to achieve a badge which was sewn on your gym suit. Everyone wanted to earn one. This is what we need – somethings got to offset all the chocolate milk and that vegetable — pizza!
The government needs to get out of my life and my pocket book!

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 31, 2012 at 9:11 am

Paula – the loss of recess and PE is indeed a big problem. I try to keep this blog focused on kids and food, but activity is, just as you say, a big part of the equation.

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rdntn1 January 31, 2012 at 6:01 am

Please be aware that there are still set nutrient guidelines that schools must follow along with the food based menu planning. This is the main reason why I, as a school nutrition services director and registered dietitian, support the inclusion of “starchy” vegetables in the new pattern. If complex carbohydrates are not included in a child’s diet it will be very difficult to meet the calorie levels REQUIRED by the USDA, unless of course we toss some sugar in, which we don’t want to do. Please be supportive of your local school nutrition services staff, and if you can’t do that, either stay out of the way, or find some way to be useful during a great time of change.

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Bettina Elias Siegel January 31, 2012 at 9:09 am

rdntn1: Could you unpack that comment for the laypeople reading TLT — which includes me? :-) You’re saying that even the reduced calorie levels in the new standards will be hard to meet without starchy veg and sugar? I’d like to better understand.

And I wasn’t sure if your last sentence (“Please be supportive of your local school nutrition services staff . . .”) was directed at me personally or the readership generally. If at me personally, I’m wondering if you’ve been reading this blog for a while or if you’re a newcomer? Because one aspect of TLT of which I’m most proud is that this blog has proven to be a forum where school food providers feel as comfortable voicing their views as anyone else, and I like to think this is because I feel (and have expressed here many times) only the greatest respect for what they do and the daunting challenges they face.

I’ve been pleased to have school food providers guest blog here (Wilma, our anonymous guest blogger, as well as Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch, and Maggie, a frequent commenter, is also from the school food world.) In fact, in the coming days, I’ll be posting a critique of the new standards by an anonymous school food insider who is taking issue with some of my views about them. Stay tuned.

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chantal September 11, 2012 at 7:50 pm

yeah i’m in high school now, and the foods is just replusive.(dry, stale, and expired) I don’t eat during school now that these new regulations are in service. plus my my school was already broke, now it’s just worse. And i don’t see how this act is going to effect anything. Plus you only need to do one year of p.e. during four years of high school,then when schools out i can just go to a fast food place and pig-out…

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 11, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Chantal: I’m sorry to hear that your school food is so bad. I do think the new law is having a pretty big impact, at least in terms of the amount of fruits and vegetables served, but if the meals are poorly executed at your school, of course you don’t want to eat them. And you raise a good point about open campuses – once kids are in high school, if they have transportation and funds, there’s nothing to keep them from eating fast food every day, just as you say. I appreciate your input here – it’s good to hear from students about their real world experiences, even if those experiences aren’t ideal.

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