Yesterday I hastily posted about the USDA’s proposed new regulations for school food, but because I was burdened with a lengthy To-Do list and a doctor’s appointment that ran late, I don’t think I did this topic justice. So let me lay it out in terms that will get your attention:
The new school food regulations – however they look in their final form — are a big deal. They will dictate the food that does (and doesn’t) appear on millions of kids’ lunch trays for the foreseeable future.
The new rules run to 78 pages of tiny type, and I’m only just starting to read them. But here are two big changes that you should know about now:
Moving From Nutrient-Based to Food-Based Meal Planning
As outlined in my Schoool Lunch FAQs, school districts currently may use one of two methods to ensure their compliance with the program’s nutritional requirements.
The older method is called “Food-Based Menu Planning”, in which a school must offer five foods in every school lunch: a meat/meat alternative, grains/breads, two servings of fruits and vegetables and a milk. This is the way the average person thinks about planning a meal in their own home: some foods from this group, some from that.
The second method, called “Nutrient Standard Menu Planning” allows a school district pay less attention to the foods served, so long as the requisite number of nutrients are offered over the course of an entire week. According to Janet Poppendieck, about 30% of school districts (including Houston ISD) use the Nutrient Standard. One consequence of using the Nutrient Standard method is the increased reliance by school districts on manufactured products and meals. Manufacturers can fortify and tweak their products so that they are compliant with the nutrient standard and can also offer what’s called a “CN Label” that indemnifies the school district should it later be found noncompliant with federal nutrition regulations. The Nutrient Standard can also lead to some bizarre results: my own school district served graham crackers — essentially cookies — to kids at breakfast because they contain iron (due to fortification) and that helped the district meet the nutrient standard for iron. Crazy.
The good news (in my opinion) is that the new rules move us back to a primarily Food-Based standard. The proposed meal pattern for breakfast would offer fruits, grains, meats/meat alternatives and milk, while lunch would include fruits, vegetables, grains, meats/meat alternatives, and milk. (A nutrient standard does comes into play with respect to limits on things like sodium, saturated fats and trans fats.)
Back in the 1940′s, when malnutrition was of greater concern than it is today, calorie minimums (but not maximums) were set for school meals. These same minimums have been carried over to the present day, despite the fact that children now eat far more food outside of scheduled meal times than in the past. Schools faced the difficult problem of meeting the calorie minimums without tipping over the limits on fat. The result: lower fat but high sugar foods, like cookies and cakes, appearing regularly on lunch trays.
The new school food regulations would set both minimum and maximum calorie levels, which is welcome news to those concerned about both childhood obesity and childhood hunger.
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I’ll continue to delve into the regulations (embarrassingly, this is enjoyable bedtime reading for the kid-and-food blogger!) and will share thoughts and insights with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you may also want to check out Marion Nestle’s take on the regulations here.