USDA Permanently Lifts Meat and Grain Caps in School Lunches

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 6, 2014

Happy 2014, TLT’ers!  I’m kicking off the year with news of a positive school food development that occurred over this blog’s winter break.

Several times last year I told you how school food professionals had been complaining about one particular aspect of the new school food regulations, namely the weekly caps imposed on grain and protein servings.  These caps, while well intentioned, had caused all sorts of unforeseen problems.

Three commentators here on The Lunch Tray felt the caps: made it harder to serve healthy choices like sandwiches and soups; discouraged scratch cooking over the use of processed foods; and gave school food directors an incentive to serve “empty calories.”  The limits on grains and proteins also contributed to well-publicized complaints by some students that they were going hungry after eating school meals (although see my September 2012 post on why I felt some of those complaints were suspect.)

Aware of these concerns, USDA temporarily lifted the grain and protein caps for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year and last week the agency indicated that it will make this change permanent.

Some food activists saw the hand of the agricultural lobby behind USDA’s initial suspension of the caps, and it’s true that legislators from beef and grain producing states were in support of making this rule change permanent.  But I think this may be one rare case in which the interests of Big Ag and the needs of school food professionals (and, by extension, the kids they serve) actually align.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey Hinds January 6, 2014 at 2:47 pm

There is a difference between raising the caps and getting rid of them altogether. I think this will be a setback for getting more kids to learn to like fruits and vegetables. Hope I am wrong and you are right.


Bettina Elias Siegel January 6, 2014 at 3:44 pm

Casey: Given that there is still an overall calorie cap AND a requirement that fruits and veg be served daily, I’m not sure what the concern is. It’s not like the tray can be taken over by grains/meats even without the cap. What do you think?


Casey January 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm

The calorie cap and daily fruit/veg requirement weren’t effective in limiting added sugar and I think this change will make it even worse:
It seems like Pepsi was primed for this change in order to swoop in to “help” schools with a menu that has chips every other day:


Milehimama January 6, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Yay! I hope this means no more stretching the meat with soy fillers. Although I don’t think this will mean a return to scratch cooking- my child’s elementary doesn’t even HAVE a kitchen, not a real one.


Sophie January 6, 2014 at 7:36 pm

No doubt about it, this lifting of the maximums is a WIN! Thanks for keeping everyone aware of subtle regulatory nuances that can have big ramifications, Bettina!


Bettina Elias Siegel January 9, 2014 at 6:52 am


I asked some of my school food friends and was told that sugar in school meals will necessarily be limited due to the overall cap on calories — plus the fact that there is a 2x a week limit on the number of times you can count desserts as a grain food.

I know there are many out there who regard the lifting of these caps with suspicion, but three school food experts whom I greatly respect (Justin Gagnon, Dana Woldow and “Wilma,” my anonymous school food professional) all guest blogged here to explain that the caps were impeding schools’ ability to serve healthful and more creative meals. (The links to those posts are above.) I also heard the same complaints at food services meetings in my own district of Houston ISD.

Do I think the school meal standards are yet ideal, or that by lifting these limits, all schools will start scratch cooking soups and sandwiches? No. But I do have the utmost respect for the people who do this for a living and I’m willing to trust their judgment on this issue.

Thanks, as always, for commenting here and keeping the discussion going!


Casey January 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

I have a great deal of respect for your opinion and many of the others you mentioned so that gives me more hope this will not be as much of a setback as I thought. As you know, one of my concerns is diabetes prevention, so menus with less grains & sugar/more fruits & vegetables are important. It seems like diabetes prevention is becoming a luxury for those that can afford it and school meals are an important tool to help level the playing field when it comes to health disparities and chronic disease. Looking forward to continuing this conversation as we see how it is implemented. Thanks!


Karen W January 10, 2014 at 9:50 am

I have to applaud the people working in the school lunch programs and trying to keep up with all the changes to make healthier lunches.


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