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Lunch Ladies Tell USDA to Stuff New Meal Guidelines

March 30th, 2011 · 8 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

Scraping spinach off spinach lasagna

The School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 of the nation’s cafeteria professionals, has told the USDA it objects to nearly every aspect of proposed meal guidelines that call for bigger helpings of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer French fries, and less salt.

Food policy advocates–including first lady Michelle Obama–have hailed the guidelines as a giant step forward toward healthier school meals. But lunch ladies complain the federal government is sticking them with a bill they can’t afford, that the rules in some cases may be impossible to implement, and that kids may not eat the improved cafeteria fare the government is proposing. The SNA says key provisions of the guidelines should be delayed, softened or abandoned altogether.

The SNA’s formal comments, submitted to the USDA this week, point up the huge disconnect that sometimes exists between policy makers and those who work on the front lines of the school food controversy. For instance, Congress in its recent re-authorization of the school lunch program increased funding by just six cents per lunch. The USDA now estimates that the proposed meal guidelines will require 15 cents more for lunch and 51 cents more for breakfast.

 Congress did not allocate any extra money for breakfast. The SNA suggests the new breakfast standards “be delayed until additional funding is available to help offset costs.”

In a letter to the USDA, SNA President Nancy Rice says the proposed guidelines are simply too ambitious, and put too much pressure on schools to solve an obesity problem that is also the responsibility of parents and the food industry.

“SNA members do have concerns regarding their ability to meet the requirements of the proposed rule, especially as the impacts of the regulations are theoretical at this point, having never been piloted or studied….”

The SNA predicts rural areas and states such as Alaska will be hard-pressed to meet requirements for bigger servings of green and orange vegetables in school lunches, and that price fluctuations and seasonality could prevent schools from complying with the standard. The USDA should “encourage rather than require” the proposed vegetable selections, according to the SNA.

Along similar lines, school nutritionists object to a proposal that would limit serving potatoes and other “starchy vegetables” such as corn, peas and lima beans to just one cup per week, saying the rule “hampers school efforts to offer locally grown vegetables throughout the fall and winter, as well as regionally preferred foods such as corn in Mexican dishes.”

French fries–a kid favorite–are almost always baked these days, not fried, the SNA points out.

The USDA guidelines would require that all grain products served in schools qualify as “whole grain-rich” within two years. But the SNA argues that such products are not widely available, and recommends delaying the requirement until the 2013-2014 school year.

Reducing sodium in meals by 50 percent within 10 years, as the guidelines require, may be impossible, the SNA says. Americans get most of their excess sodium from prepared foods. Even the USDA has said it isn’t sure how the target would be reached, except through “innovation” not yet determined. The SNA says the government should at least make allowances for sodium that occurs naturally in foods such as milk and meat.

Finally, food service directors are concerned that requiring the healthier foods as outlined in the proposed guidelines will cause many students to drop out of the school lunch program. The guidelines would load up on foods kids traditionally don’t like, and restrict menu items that are acknowledged favorites.

In fact, research sponsored by the USDA has projected that adopting a range of healthier options would result in a 5 percent reduction in participation at the elementary school level and an even greater dropout rate–12 percent–in secondary schools.

Here in the District of Columbia, school officials have undertaken a major menu overhaul, replacing processed convenience foods with freshly cooked vegetables, whole grains and even some scratch-cooked entrees like spinach lasagna. From what I see visiting the cafeteria at my daughter’s elementary school, much of the improved food ends up in the trash. Frequently, the kids won’t touch it.

School food service directors also object to a provision of the meals re-authorization that would require schools to start charging more for lunch. According the SNA, the move will almost certainly turn away children who pay full price.

Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack recently told several hundred SNA members gathered in Washington that he sympathizes with their dilemma.   “I understand what happens when someone wants to impose on you a set ofrequirements that just don’t fit in the real world,” he said.

The public comment period for the proposed meal guidelines ends April 13. Permanent guidelines could be in place as early as fall 2012.

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  • jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal

    “French fries–a kid favorite–are almost always baked these days, not fried, the SNA points out.”

    (falling out of my chair) does anyone actually believe this? the school may reheat the fries in an oven vs a fryer but at the factory i’m fairly certain those taters are deep fat fried before they go into the freezer. do people really think that it’s only the reheating method that counts? out of sight out of mind.

  • The Table of Promise

    Thanks for this article. I understand where they are coming from on issues like seasonality and naturally occuring sodium, and I don’t have any issue with starchy vegetables being served. But I continue to be CONFUSED about the nutrition guidelines. So many people are outspoken that it hinders the lunch program. I thought this would be a good thing!
    If the kids don’t eat it, why do it? Is it okay for the government to continue to serve unhealthy food because that is what the people want? Doesn’t that make them complicit in the problem? This whole situation leaves me feeling very confused about what the right thing to do is.

  • Ed Bruske

    Jenna, I’m not sure if that applies to all potato products. Here’s a link describing how processed potatoes are made to be microwavable:

  • Ed Bruske

    Christa, I think the point is the school lunch program could hardly be less kid friendly, and I don’t mean that in terms of chicken nuggets versus chickien on the bone. This is a government program with guidelines written by committees, volumes of rules and regulations, mountains of paperwork and accountability requirements aimed at adults. Kids are the caboose in this process. How they behave around food is the last consideration. Probably the best thing to do with this program now would be to start over. Short of that, adults–meaning all of us–need to get very busy finding ways to engage children in healthier eating behaviors. They can’t just drop this at the cafeteria door. Currently, I just do not see that kind of commitment coming from most school district, parents or political leaders.

  • Lisa Suriano

    Ed – you are so spot on with your last comment! I encountered the obstacles to getting kids to embrace healthy food in the most ideal school food environment (upper income private schools). That lead me to think outside the box and find a realistic way to engage educators and parents in the mission. Since the development of that program I have be floored by the resistance by some folks to pay any attention to nutrition issues in school all together. However, when I am fortunate enough to find a like-minded individual or leader, our efforts simple soar!

    I understand why the SNA made some of the statements they did. These changes are not being mandated into a system that necessarily can handle them. However, the SNA has a great deal of influence in the food industry and should have leveraged that to make a call to action to manufacturers. If you present problems you ought to present some viable, positive solutions from your perspective as well. That would have made their words more accepted, I believe.

  • Emily

    Gotta agree with you on behaviors, Ed. It was visible in Jamie Oliver’s lunch series that the ONE thing that got kids to try the new foods was to have an adult say “Try this food. Let me see you take two bites.” They also did badges for “adventurous eaters” and whatnot. And the one teacher who took it upon herself to teach kids what each vegetable was…well, her kids could identify every veggie. Amazing what people learn when you *teach them*.

  • Ivana Kadija

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Lisa. The SNA needs to step out from “defending” a very messed up system and offer some solutions. They could start by saying, can we ditch that silly 100% juice that we currently consider the same as a serving of fruit. (Remember “ketchup is a vegetable”?) That would get them $0.12. Add the $0.06 the govt. is pitching in and you have the estimate $0.15 extra the USDA says we need for lunch.

    The problem is that no one is talking about sugars. They are in virtually anything the kids ARE eating! To confuse matters further, the USDA refuses to acknowledge that all sugars have virtually the same effect on our metabolism, whether they come from corn (HFCS), apples (100% fruit juice) or beets and sugar cane (table sugar). Our adolescents are getting 25% of their daily calories from ADDED sugars. It is in virtually everything that we are serving these kids in school. A little bit is naturally occurring. True. The vast majority is added or considered naturally occurring because it originated from a fruit. Even I was shocked to discover that there is a 1/2 tsp of added sugar in the hamburger patty?

    We are addicted to sugar as a nation, so it is no wonder that the kids are dumping the overcooked green beans and sucking down the chocolate milk and maple syrup (actually HFCS with food coloring). I actually watched a skinny little kid alternating taking “shots” of each and then dumping the rest of his tray.

    By comparison, when the kids are served fresh fruits and vegetables for snack they eat virtually every piece, unless it’s something really odd and then they almost always at least try it! My daughter’s elementary school is blessed to have received the federally subsidized Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for Title 1 schools so I get to see this first-hand. Of course, the classrooms where it works best are those where the teacher does not allow any other snack from home to be pulled out and, most importantly, doesn’t bring HER food biases to the presentation.

    This whole debate about what kids will or will not eat is ridiculous as long as we are offering them a highly addictive alternative. Though I do agree that we need to do more to get them, and their teachers and parents, involved. And, that the “healthy food” currently being offered is incredibly unappealing.

    Oh, and, “naturally occurring sodium” is the least of our problems and the SNA knows it. This statement is another example of how they are adding to the confusion instead of offering constructive solutions.

    Potatoes are great… but if the only way you ever serve them is doused in ketchup (4 tsp sugar per tablespoon) they don’t help kids learn to enjoy the natural sweetness of foods.

  • Ivana Kadija

    “ketchup (4 tsp sugar per tablespoon) ”
    I meant to say 4 GRAMS, which equal 1 tsp.

    Which brings up another issue… could the sugar measurement on labels be any more confusing?

    There is no RDV % specifically for sugar. The USDA essentially refuses to guide consumers to their rather liberal official recommendation of 10 tsp per day. The American Heart Association thinks 6 is plenty… for an adult female, not a kindergardener.

    If you want to figure out how many teaspoons are in there you have to divide the grams by 4. Who has time, or the math skills, for that?