More Food for Hungry Students: USDA Tweaks School Meals

A viral video of students complaining about skimpy school meals prompts much needed adjustments to cafeteria menus

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Baerbel Schmidt / Getty Images

A viral video of students complaining about skimpy school meals prompts much needed adjustments to cafeteria menus.

Schools across the country continue to struggle with implementing the first new nutritional guidelines in 15 years governing meals served to nearly 32 million U.S. students every day. The new requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program, put in place in January 2012, include eliminating full-fat milk, boosting whole-grain foods and reducing total calories on menus, and some schools are finding it a challenge to make their menus work under these regulations. Amid pressure from government officials, however, the USDA recently loosened up on some of its requirements on meat and grains.

Throughout the school year, school officials complained that the calorie ranges under the new standards are too restrictive, leaving highly active kids, many of whom participate in intensive sports programs, hungry. Students from Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kans., brought nationwide attention to the scanty lunch menus when they released a parody video highlighting the inadequate calories in the new meals. When parents and nutritionists pressured schools, several Senators from farm states, including North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, appealed to the USDA to adjust the requirements.

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In response to the criticism, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in a letter to Hoeven and Congress that the USDA would lift the cap on meat portions and loosen its requirement on grains. Vilsack writes:

We always anticipated that some modifications and other allowances would be required for changes of this size and scope. USDA has asked for, and states and schools have provided us with, valuable feedback. As a result, you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.

Major changes including calorie ranges, however, remain unchanged. That means meals for elementary-school students should contain 550 to 650 calories, while middle schoolers should consume 600 to 700 calories and high schoolers should be offered 750 to 850 calories. Schools still have to add more whole grains, limit salt and offer at least one fruit or vegetable per meal.

The changes Vilsack announced are only temporary and intended to give schools some extra leeway as they continue to update their menus. It’s not clear if the original limits will be reinstated again next year.

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“It wasn’t a big surprise that [the USDA] made those adjustments,” says Erik Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Health Group. “They decided schools needed some time to do this. Standards for school meals have not been updated in 17 years. Right now, it looks like [these changes] are taking care of the issues some schools were facing that were causing initial growing pains.”

The USDA was unwilling to make more sweeping concessions possibly because there are some school districts that are implementing the new regulations with little difficulty and are not reporting major complaints from their students. A survey from the California Endowment reported that 82% of California students, for example, say they support the changes. The Carrollton City Schools district in Georgia was named one of several school district “success stories” by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a joint effort between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide a nonpartisan analysis of school nutrition.

(MORE: Kids Create Parody Video to Protest School Lunches)

What are these schools doing right? Long before school-meal standards were revamped, the Georgia district made improving nutrition a priority. Over the past 10 years, officials slowly introduced more whole-grain foods and fresh produce. Now, the four schools that make up the district serve 3,860 meals a day and offer a different fruit and vegetable daily. School nutritionists estimate fruit-and-veggie consumption has increased by up to 40%. The schools also eliminated sugary beverages from their vending machines and replaced them with water and 100% juice drinks. To offset the lost vending revenue, the schools held fundraisers to sell products like homecoming T-shirts.

“We have always tried to look for ways to promote our reimbursable meals and make them healthier. We have active support from the principals, superintendents, boards,” says Linette Dodson, director of school nutrition for Carrollton City Schools. “It’s been a collaborative process over the last 12 years of constantly re-evaluating and seeing how we can make things better for our students.” Dodson says her district welcomes the USDA adjustments since they give nutritionists more meal flexibility.

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Olson says schools, like those in Carrollton City, that started bolstering their nutritional value early on have experienced the most success. “It’s always going to be a hit or miss with some menu items when you introduce new foods to kids,” he says. “Schools that got a head start watching what the Institute of Medicine was doing and talking to dietitians didn’t have to do everything at once.”

Having a phase-in period is critical, according to Olson. Schools that offered taste tests with their students before slowly offering new foods typically see better acceptance of healthy items. Schools that spent time training their staff and making equipment changes in their kitchens to better accommodate new cooking methods were also better prepared.

Given that data on the success of some school districts with the new lunch-and-breakfast guidelines, some experts are skeptical of the most recent adjustments, criticizing Congress for interfering with nutrition requirements. When the USDA was pressured by makers of French fries and pizza last year over what they considered to be restrictive regulations, Congress amended the standards to consider tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable and removed limits on servings of potatoes and French fries.

In response to the easing of restrictions on the amount of meat served to students, Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Why Calories Count wrote on her Food Politics blog: “Protein? Since when is protein an issue in American diets? Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required. What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school-lunch programs.”

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Schools and nutrition experts are now waiting for tighter vending-machine and snack regulations. The current guidelines apply primarily to meals served in school cafeterias, so students are still allowed to purchase additional food and drinks outside the lunchroom, and many vending-machine favorites are high in sugar and calories. While anti-childhood-obesity advocates have called on the USDA for stricter standards on all foods sold on school campuses, the agency has yet to release any guidelines.