Posted on Thu, June 25, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
0 Comments | Categories: Policy, School Food,
Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
As Congress gears up for this years child nutrition reauthorization, there has been a lot of discussion about the loopholes in the National School Lunch Program. For the most part, though, those discussions have focused on the laughably outdated list of foods of minimal nutritional value and the junk food that cafeterias sell outside of complete, reimbursable meals. Few people been paying attention to the loopholes that affect the nutritional quality of the meals themselves. Over the past few months, Ive been accumulating a list of loopholes that allow school cafeterias to dish out less-than-healthy lunches. Here are a few of my favorites:
Percent Calories from Fat School meals must contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. However, regulations set only a minimum for calories, not a maximum (in fact, Ive spoken to school foodservice directors who say they were written up for serving low-calorie meals and had to put desserts back on the menu to meet the regulations). That means meeting the percent-from-fat requirements is largely a game. An entree that is high in fat or saturated fat is totally OK to serve, as long as you put it on the menu with side dishes that are high in calories but low in fat. Recently, I talked to a director who said she had been encouraged to put small bags of Skittles on the menu to meet the benchmarks. The candy boosts the calories in a meal without adding fat, so it often puts the percent of calories from fat within the acceptable threshold (its also fortified with vitamin C, so it helps meet that requirement as well). So while a meal with French fries or stuffed-crust pizza may be too high in fat to meet the nutrition guidelines, adding some candy (or another source of extra calories) to the tray makes the lunch into a USDA-compliant meal.
Offer Versus Serve (OVS) OVS is a provision that is supposed to reduce waste in the cafeteria and allow students to choose foods they prefer. All high schools are required to implement OVS, and though it is optional for elementary schools and middle schools, most cafeterias participate. OVS allows students to decline two of the five items on the menu. Most cafeterias (70 percent) use the USDA meal pattern known as food-based menu planning, which requires them to offer five items in each lunch: a meat/meat alternate, a grain, a fruit and a vegetable (or two servings of one of these) and fluid milk. Under OVS, students can put only three of those offerings on their trays, and their meals will still bring in the full USDA reimbursement. Cafeterias love OVS, not only because less food ends up in the trash, but also because it lowers costs. If they know only 50 students are going to take green beans, they only have to put out 50 servings, rather than, say, 500. Nutritionally, though, OVS leads to student trays that are packed with meat, bread and cheese, as most students decline the fruit and the vegetable. The USDA would never allow a cafeteria to offer a lunch of chicken nuggets, tater tots and milk, since that meal wouldnt meet the nutrition requirements. But the USDA will still reimburse a cafeteria for a tray that contains only those three items.
Weekly nutrient analysis School meals must meet nutrition requirements when averaged over the whole week. That means any given meal may be too high in fat, or too low in iron or vitamin C. A student who eats lunch in the cafeteria every day (and takes every meal component, as we saw above), will have a nutritionally sound diet (at least during the school day). But most students dont eat in the cafeteria every day. Students who receive free and reduced-price meals eat school lunch on only 70 percent of meal occasions, and students who pay the full price of a meal often buy only when the menu features foods they like the ones that tend to be less healthy. South Carolina, the State Senate recently considered legislation that would have eliminated the weekly nutrition analysis, making each meal meet the requirements individually. But the legislation met fierce opposition from cafeterias and school boards, who knew this would effectively ban bestselling items like pepperoni pizza and fried chicken. Under the current rules, they can serve those items a few days a week as long as they balance them out with healthier options on the other days. But the reason fried chicken and pizza are so lucrative is that so many students come into the cafeteria when theyre offered. On the healthier days the ones meant to balance out the weekly nutrients not nearly as many students buy lunch.
The USDA knows that the regulations for school meals are in need of an overhaul, and the department has asked the Institute of Medicine to prepare recommendations for improved nutrition standards. The IOMs report is due in December and will likely set limits on things like sodium, trans fats and calories. That is very promising for school nutrition. But the new standards will not go far unless these loopholes are addressed.