New Food in School?

Have you been wondering how, for as long as you can remember, pepperoni pizza and French fries fit into the meal pattern for lunch at school? How is it possible that foods high in fat, sodium and calories are able to make the grade as nutritious lunch choices for students? All that is about to change. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed new nutrition standards for school meal programs. Many of us in the nutrition community are very excited about the new set of standards since they propose to add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals while reducing the levels of sodium and saturated fat in those meals. These same nutrients are found in the Guiding Stars system used to rate the nutritional value of foods.

The reasons for this change are to update standards with the latest available nutrition science and to help improve the diets of school children in an effort to promote their health. The proposed standards are based on the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and on two reports from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) including the 2009 report “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children.”

When the U.S. government mandates something new, there is a procedure involved.  Here is how the process of updating the nutrition standards works:

  • USDA published the proposed rule for Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. This happened on January 13, 2011.
  • There is a period of time for the public to submit comments on the proposed rule. The comment period ended April 13, 2011.
  • USDA reviews all comments, they are included in the record, and are made available to the public. USDA received an unprecedented amount of comments on the proposed rule – 140,000.
  • USDA then publishes either the interim or final nutrition regulations and schools have a finite period of time to implement those rules into their school food service practices. USDA needs to publish the interim or final rules by July 2012.

Here is what you may expect to see in the meals at your child’s school in the near future:

  • Less starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn, green peas, lima beans)
  • Only unflavored 1% low-fat milk and flavored or unflavored skim milk will be served
  • More fruits and vegetables
  • More whole grains, eventually all grains will be whole grain rich
  • No trans fat
  • Less sodium in meals over the next 10 years
  • Calorie maximums and minimums
Potatoes (1998)
Potatoes (1998) / Gordon Joly / CC BY 2.0

Out of this process, a debate has arisen regarding the first time ever requirement for the type of vegetable in the lunch meal pattern. Specifically, it singles out the white potato. When served in school, the white potato most frequently shows up as French fries. The new pattern includes a one cup per week limit on starchy vegetables defined as white potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans. This is out of a total of 3.75 cups for grades K-8 and 5 cups for grades 9-12 of vegetables, per week. The remaining cups are to be made up of dark green and orange vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas), and other vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, lettuce, etc. The intention of the change is to offer school lunches that are nutrient-rich and calorie-appropriate to promote the most nutritious choices for our children.

As a mother and registered dietitian, I assert that since one in three children are overweight or obese and French fries (a processed form of white potato coated with fat) are the number one vegetable in school lunches, we should wholeheartedly embrace this change. Providing our children with more dark green and orange vegetables, legumes and other vegetables will support meeting their nutrient needs for protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber all within healthy calorie levels. It will also be an opportunity for our children to choose from a wider variety of vegetables that have been shown to promote health and help prevent the chronic diseases plaguing our population such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Teams of scientists called together by the IOM identified the nutrient needs of children and issued the two reports related to nutrition standards for school meals which formed the scientific basis for the proposed rule.

If you don’t want us to rely on science and you want our children to continue to eat starch and fat for lunch, then by all means, argue for the potato. I, for one, argue for the health of our children. I like them a whole lot more than a bushel of potatoes.