Posted on Thu, October 22, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Labeling, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food,
Deborah Lehmann is studying economics and public policy at Brown University, where she was recently awarded a Royce Fellowship. She writes for the Brown Daily Herald, covering campus news and trends in higher education. She is also the editor of School Lunch Talk, where this post first appeared.
The current nutrition standards for school meals are in sore need of an overhaul. They havent been updated since 1995, and theyre not in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA tried for several years to bring the regulations up to date, but after running into problems either technical, or political, or both the department outsourced the task to the Institute of Medicine last year.
The IOM released its recommendations yesterday, and theres some good news and some bad news.
Heres the bad news: the changes may increase costs for cafeterias by up to 25 percent for breakfasts, and up to 9 percent for lunches. Unless Congress increases the reimbursement rate for school meals, most cafeterias wont have the money to meet the new guidelines.
The IOM proposed sweeping changes to the school meal nutrition standards. First, the committee recommended a food-based menu planning system that includes limits on calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium. Currently, schools have the option of using a nutrient-based system, which makes it easy to serve heavily processed, fortified food. They can meet requirements for vitamin C, for example, by serving fortified fruit snacks. Under a food-based system, nutrient targets are used in developing the standards for school meals, but they are not used in the actual menu planning. Instead, schools must simply serve items from a number of different food groups, including dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.
In addition to proposing a food-based meal pattern, the IOM recommended the following changes:
- School lunches should have a maximum calorie level (current regulations only set a minimum)
- The new regulations should place limits on sodium (currently there are none)
- Fruits and vegetables should no longer be interchangeable (currently, schools can serve either a fruit or a vegetable for lunch)
- Students should be required to select either a fruit or a vegetable for their lunch to be reimbursable (currently they must take three of the five offerings, and most take the milk, the meat and the bread)
- Over the course of a week, schools should serve 1/2 cup each of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes
- Half of the grains served each week should be whole grains
- Schools should offer only fat-free and low-fat milk
- Labeling on any packaged food product should indicate 0 grams of trans fat
These standards are based on solid science and, if implemented, they would go a long way toward improving the nutritional quality of school meals. Now its up to the USDA to include them in the new school meal regulations. In the coming months, the department will review the proposed standards and adjust them to make sure they remain within cost limits. Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, put it this way: Both cost and science will drive the standards, and cost will be the bigger one.
The science is here now, this is simply a question of priorities. If Congress is truly committed to providing schoolchildren with nutritious breakfasts and lunches, lawmakers are going to have to raise the reimbursement rate for school meals. Hopefully the IOMs report will persuade them to do so.