Saturday, January 15, 2011

USDA Revamps School Lunch!

It has been on the mind of so many for so long... Why are we feeding the kids that in school every day?! Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or just a student wondering why you could not be granted healthier options in your home away from home for just about 50% of every year, the topic of school food has been one of national embarrassment. There were always some schools and some programs that stood out like beacons of light showing what could be, what might be, but it seemed that the school food industry at large was missing the point. That was, of course, until Thursday, January 13, 2011.

The New Rules
The USDA released new regulations for school breakfast and school lunch, outlining types of foods, calorie counts, fat and sodium content amongst a bunch of other details to adhere to that are all pointing in the right direction. Let's first take a look at the table that describes the basic breakdown of weekly meals for school aged children as outlined in their report:
This chart is taken from a very long document called The Fedral Register

The table has the foods outlined by weekly servings, so the lunch goal is that students in Grades K-5, for example,
  • will have 2.5cups of fruit per week with no less than 0.5 cup per day, 
  • 3.75 cups of vegetables per week, with no less than 0.75 cup per day,
  • 9-10 oz of grains per week, with no less than 1 ounces per day,
  • 8-10 oz of meat or meat alternates per week, with no less than 1 ounces per day,
  • 5 cups of fluid milk per week, with no less than 1 cup per day,
  • staying within a daily calorie range of 550-650,
  • less than 10% of calories coming from fat, 
  • no more than 640 mg of sodium per day, and
  • nutrition labels or manufacturer specifications must show ZERO trans fats.
That's a lot to take in. God bless the cook! Personally, I get nervous when things get super-itemized, but I guess when working with such an enormous and varied industry, there has to be some way to regulate it.

The Big Changes
Here's the real question: How much better is this than what we had before? Well, the good people at the USDA even made a handy-dandy table for that! Check this out:
Click image to make larger.
The major improvements I see here are in the vegetables and the grains. We have moved away from merely "encouraging" schools to serve whole grains, to placing a minimum requirement of whole grains on the menu. As for the vegetables, I simply love what is going on there - VARIATION!! How wonderful! All different types of veggies: Dark green, Orange, Legumes and Starchy all have their own minimum requirements, and then there is even more flexibility allowed in the "Other" category. This is something that makes my soul smile.

How It Translates
We have looked at it in black and white, now the question is, what does this all end up looking like? A sample Elementary school menu has been constructed comparing the old school lunches to the new school lunches. Here is a clipping from it:

I don't know how the kids will feel about it, but I am loving the extra fruit and veggies!

I am completely overjoyed by the release of this news and I believe it is going to have an impact on the children that live through it, but I, in all good conscience, can not say that this is yet "perfect." So what are some of the pitfalls, or, rather, improvements for our future, that we can still keep our minds on?
  1. I can't find anywhere in The Federal Register any word about where these fruits and veggies are coming from. Are they locally grown, are they organic? Sarah Parsons of Sustainable Food summed it up well, "Phasing in more organics could have boosted kids' health, as pesticides have been linked to a host of health problems from cancers to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to reproductive problems."
  2. Marion Nestle of Food Politics adds another salient point about the sacrifice we make to meet the strict standards, "...the foods are accompanied by strangely tasting miracles of food technology such as reduced-fat mayonnaise, low-fat salad dressings, and soft margarines.  Why?  To meet nutrient standards." 
  3. And, finally, what about sugar? Why didn't any sugar regulations make it to the regs? When interviewed for Grist, Dr. Walter Willet, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School for Public Health, points a finger squarely at flavored milk.  "These highly sugared milks make absolutely no sense whatsoever," Willet told Ed Bruske in an interview. "The use of sugar as an important part of the diet makes absolutely no sense nutritionally, especially when obesity is the No. 1 health problem facing our nation." 
So, of course, there is still more to be done, but, for now let us revel in our baby steps toward a healthier tomorrow. Our children will be presented with healthier meals which, in turn can help them become healthier humans to create an even healthier society and planet... life is good!

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