I hope I’m not exhausting you with posts about the new school meal regulations, but these rules impact the diets of millions of American children every day and seem worthy of in-depth discussion on any blog devoted to “kids and food.”
Today I want to share an excerpt from an email I received from “Wilma.” (For newcomers to The Lunch Tray, Wilma is an anonymous school food professional somewhere in the United States who contacts me from time to time with her views about school food from “behind the line.” ) I wanted to share her concerns about the new regulations, concerns which in many ways echo those of Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch (a private school meal catering service), whose views I shared in an earlier post, and those of school food reformer Dana Woldow. Here’s what Wilma had to say:
One last point I feel like is critical: calorie requirements for each age/grade group. I personally think that the calories are fairly reasonable, but the problem is the students don’t select everything that is offered.
The other challenge is where the calories are coming from. We have to limit the grains/meats (great sources of calories) and increase vegetables that typically run 20-80 calories per 1/2c serving (and are not as desirable to the students). We are finding ourselves back in the “nutrient standard” issues of finding calories. More empty calories will be creeping back into the menu. Jello (the only regs are for fruits/juices with added sugar, not extras!), baked chips (don’t count as a component), imitation cheese sauce (because real cheese sauce counts as a meat/meat alternate and we cant afford to put any more of those on the menu and still meet mins/max)…I actually had a broker come in and bring some dessert treats that shall remain nameless that do not contribute to the grains… therefore are not regulated by the grain-based dessert rule and a great way to add calories to the meals without going over the ranges.
Don’t get me wrong, these regulations in THEORY are great! But I have to agree with your friend Dana and say that some of the creativity of menu planning has actually been taken away because of the new regs. It took me a few weeks into school before I could bring back the “chipotle-like” meal line (with lots of fresh veggies). I’d love to do things like soup/salad or sandwich/salad combos but the regs are very difficult to maneuver. I find myself in a position many other menu planners are in: find the processed food item that fits the requirements. It’s a lot easier than trying to get scratch recipes to work in the new world of menu planning.
So there seems to be a consensus (among these experts, at least) that the new rules may get in the way of schools trying to offer more scratch-cooking and menu variety, and there’s a worry that more processed food will be used since it’s always easier to shoe-horn processed products into such a highly regulated scheme. That’s certainly troubling, and I’m wondering if it will be possible to tweak those rules before their next major overhaul — something that took 15 years to accomplish the last time around.
I also wanted to share input from another school food professional, Maggie, who often comments on The Lunch Tray. Maggie took the time to answer my question about this notion, widely reported in the media, that kids can now take unlimited fruits and vegetables if they’re still hungry after the meal. Maggie wrote:
Bettina, just got a USDA fact sheet today and here’s one paragraph from it:
“Also, there are no specific maximums on fruits, vegetables or milk. Schools may choose to allow greater than the required minimums by offering self-serve salad bars or allowing second servings of these components. Additional servings do count toward the weekly calorie limits, but because fruits and vegetables are generally lower in calories, they can be excellent sources for satisfying meals and sustained energy.”
It isn’t a requirement, but the schools “may”.
I wanted to add the comment that the meal programs have never (to my knowledge) been an all-you-care-to-eat program, and even under the previous regulations and offer vs serve, students would not have been able to choose extra of their favored items as a substitute for others, or always be able choose more than the planned meals/menus.
I think Maggie’s last paragraph is important. Some media reports have contrasted the new “stringent” calorie caps to the “good old days” when kids were taking unlimited amounts of pizza and fries (without actually paying for a second meal) to satisfy their appetites. That really didn’t jibe with my understanding of the old system and Maggie seems to confirm this.
Finally, here’s a relatively favorable news report on the school meal regulations which aired last night on Houston’s ABC News affiliate. I appear in the report toward the end. And if the reporter hadn’t promised I’d only be shot from the waist up, I might have actually tucked in my shirt and worn something on my feet other than flip-flops!
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