New School Lunch Rules: What Works & What Doesn’t

[ 0 ] February 15, 2012 |

School lunches are getting a lot of attention these days; First Lady Michelle Obama recently helped unveil new standards for school lunch menus to make kids healthier to fulfill the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign

In late January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled new standards for school lunch. I was encouraged by this news because many of the students that I work with get their best meal of the day at school. I believe lunch needs to be more nutritious and full of quality food – that means no more “bagel dogs.” Here’s how everything broke down in the new rules and regulations:

The Good

The USDA is mandating that they want more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on lunch trays. Getting kids more exposure to fruits and vegetables is one way for our country to address the low food IQ of many kids. One caveat here: kids need fresh fruits and veggies – fruit cups in syrup and reheated broccoli need to go. Let’s partner with local organizations (non-profits or family foundations focused on wellness) to fund salad bars in schools so that kids have the chance to teach themselves how to build a salad. Whole grains? Well, that’s just a no brainer when our society is suffering from a fiber deficit.

Related: Healthy Back-to-School Lunches for Your Kids

Mrs. Q

Another great thing about the regulations: Finally we are seeing a calorie maximum! The regulations always included a minimum number of calories, but a school lunch could contain limitless calories. In the age of obesity prevention, this was asking for trouble. Calorie maximums are now in place and planning will be required based on students’ ages for how many or how few calories they need at lunch for optimal development and learning.

The new regulations also focus on reductions in saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium. When I ate school lunch for a year, I couldn’t believe how thirsty I got after lunch. It had to be the salt in all the processed foods. We need to keep bad trans fat off the menu as well – it’s the kind of fat that builds up in your arteries.

Related: Cook for America Transforms School Lunches

The school lunch reimbursement rate will be increased by $0.06 per meal per student, which is the first time that the rate has been increased in more than 30 years. Even though it’s not a lot of money, I’m happy to see that someone realizes that money is part of the problem and part of the solution.

The Bad

The regulations demand fat-free or reduced fat milk and, unfortunately, sugary milk (chocolate, strawberry, even root beer flavor in some schools) is still permissible. I’ve changed my position on fat, especially for kids. I believe that kids need good fat for learning. So many human building blocks like fatty acids require ingesting fats. I’m not fat-phobic for kids because I think that it’s not fat that is making the kids fat – it’s sugar. If kids get good fats in their lunch, they feel more satiated and will not seek out empty calories later. I worry that sugary milk just increases blood sugar temporarily leading to sluggishness in the classroom.

Related: Where School Lunches Went Wrong

These changes are going to cost more than the projected raise of $0.06 per meal. In fact, the USDA already is predicting that the new requirements, including expensive fruits and veggies, will cost $0.11 per meal. How will districts pay for these new requirements? Many districts dip into general funds – money normally going to pay for classroom and learning materials. This rubs me the wrong way.

Related: Celebrity Kids’ Chef Cricket Azima on Fun, Healthy Eating

The Ugly

Students don’t get enough time to eat. Many of my students only get between 9-13 minutes of actual eating time even though their lunch period is supposed to be 20 minutes long. That’s because lining up time is not taken in consideration. Without increases in actual eating time, no matter what the food is the kids won’t have enough time to eat it all.

Related: Changing What Our Children Eat at School

Pizza and fries both still count as vegetables. You read that right. The tomato paste on school pizza counts as a veggie. While tomatoes are definitely a veggie even when ground up into a paste, most of the pizzas I ate during my year of school lunches had little in the way of paste. And fries or tater tots as veggies? I know they are technically a veggie, but I really consider them a starch.

On the whole, I’m pleased with the new regulations. I’m happy that someone is finally paying attention to what is happening in the school cafeteria. “Childhood obesity” is a buzzword right now, but all students, no matter what their size, need optimal nutrition for learning. Many of my students are hungry and come from homes suffering from food insecurity and school lunch needs to be nourishing in so many ways for these kids. There’s more work to be done, but I see major steps in the right direction.

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Category: Health, Nutrition, Views on the News

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About Mrs. Q: Compelled by her own frustration with school meals — both as a mother and a teacher — one teacher known anonymously as “Mrs. Q” committed to eating school lunch every school day in 2010 just [...]
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