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New USDA School Food Standards: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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On Wednesday First Lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, released the final federal nutrition standards for school meals, representing the first major overhaul of school food requirements in over 15 years.

As with most products of the legislative process, the end result is messy and flawed but not without redeeming value.  Here's my bullet point summary of the best and worst aspects of the new regulations:

THE GOOD

While you may read a lot of carping in the blogosphere about where the new regulations fall short -- they still allow chocolate milk, for example, which displeases those who oppose the beverage, and pizza is still a vegetable (more on that below) -- in reality there is much to be happy about.  Here are the positive highlights:

Abolition of "Nutrient Standard Menu Planning"  

This is a wonky, in-the-weeds aspect of the new regulations that you'll likely hear little about in the mainstream press, but from my perspective it might be the single most important improvement to school meals.

Here's the background.  Under prior regulations, schools could choose to meet USDA nutritional requirements using either a "food based" or a "nutrient standard" approach to their menu planning.  The former method is pretty much what it sounds like: districts had to serve a certain number of items from the basic food groups (breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats and meat substitutes, etc.), the same way most humans approach the task of putting together a balanced meal.

But under the "nutrient standard" system (used by my own school district, Houston ISD, and many others), districts could focus instead only on whether individual nutrient requirements were being satisfied, regardless of where those nutrients came from.  This myopic, "nutritionism" approach led to some truly bizarre results, like the regular inclusion of animal crackers (aka, cookies) in our school breakfast program, added to meet the USDA iron requirement via their fortified white flour.  (My discovery of this particular practice -- and my resulting confusion and anger about it -- is actually what led me to start The Lunch Tray blog in the first place.)

Despite the fact that "some school advocacy organizations, trade associations, food manufacturers, nutritionists, and other commenters suggested that NSMP [Nutrient Standard Menu Planning] be allowed as an option," (and, by the way, is it any surprise that food manufacturers loved this approach?) USDA did the right thing and abolished it for good.

Sensible Caloric Requirements

The National School Lunch Program was started at a time when childhood malnutrition, not obesity, was the concern du jour.  As a result, for decades districts have struggled to meet calorie minimums (you read that right -- minimums) while not exceeding limits on fat.  The result was the inclusion of lots of sugar in school meals, often in the form of multiple-times-a-week, or even daily, desserts and sometimes sugary beverages. The new regulations bring caloric requirements down, a common sense move in an age of childhood obesity.

Improved Nutrition

And now for the purely nutritional improvements you've probably already read about:  schools are going to be required to offer students fruits and vegetables every day, including a wider variety of produce that includes yellow and green leafy vegetables; the amount of whole-grain-rich foods will be increased; only fat-free or low-fat milk will be offered; and the rules reflect an increased focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

THE BAD

So, what's wrong with requiring schools to provide better, healthier food?  Nothing.  But what is bad is that these regulations are an unfunded mandate;  the Congressional funding increase provided to school districts -- a mere six cents more per free meal -- is woefully inadequate to pay for the better food.  (For more on the funding issue, check out school food reformer Dana Woldow's excellent piece on how the new nutrition requirements will effectively force many districts, especially those in which labor and food costs are high, to start (or continue) dipping into classroom funds to pay for school meals.)   While other countries pay far more for their school food programs -- no doubt recognizing the long term benefits of such an investment -- the United States continues to lag woefully behind in this regard.

THE UGLY  

As these regulations were hammered out, nothing was more disheartening than watching as our elected representatives -- from both parties, by the way --  cave in like cheap suitcases in the face of Big Food's lobbying efforts.

The USDA, at the behest of Congress, sought recommendations from the Institute of Medicine on how to bring school food standards into alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  But after the IOM recommendations were released, Congress backpedalled furiously when the food industry asked it to.  So when potato growers objected to limits on servings of starchy vegetables, that idea was tossed.  And frozen food manufacturers, long benefitting from a quirk in the old rules that treated pizza as a "vegetable" (due to its tomato paste), fought successfully to maintain this counterintuitive status quo.

For those of us who care deeply about kids and nutrition, episodes like these were ugly indeed.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Are the new school food standards ideal?  No.  Are districts being given enough money to really get the job done?  No, again.  But do we have some cause for celebration?  Absolutely.  Initial, positive reactions from several leading nutrition advocates are here, and I'll share with you on The Lunch Tray more responses, positive and negative, as they come in.

Around the Web

Editorial: School lunch reform vs. Congress – USATODAY.com

Chicago Public Schools Lunch Reform

What's Going On with School Lunch Reform? | Change.org News

School Lunch Reform Causes Big Menu Changes ...