New school lunch standards downplay meat, add fruits and vegetables

Feb 3, 2012


USDA Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama announced last week improved nutritional standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are coming soon. According to US- DA, this move will be the first of its kind in over 15 years. The new standards come with specific requirements for meat, among other food groups, and overall nutrition.

The new standards have changed the daily meat/ meat alternative minimum offering and included weekly ranges for protein-source foods. School children in kindergarten through fifth grade must have a minimum of 1 ounce (oz.) of meat/ meat alternative or proteinsource food a day, with a weekly range of 8 to 10 oz. per week. The new requirement for school children in grades six through eight has the same daily minimum requirement and a weekly range of 9 to 10 oz.

High school children are now required to receive a minimum 2 oz. of meat/meat alternative or protein-source food a day, and have a weekly range of 10 to 12 oz.

Under the old standards, all age groups were to be provided with a minimum of 1.5 to 2 oz. of meat/meat alternative or protein-source foods in their lunches. There was no upper limit in the old standard.

Under the new standards, school lunches will be required to provide a third of students’ daily recommendations for protein. This can come in the form of lean or extra-lean meat, seafood, legumes, tofu, unsalted nuts or seeds, or low-fat or fatfree dairy products such as milk, cheese or yogurt. Offering tofu is an option for schools, not a requirement. Offering other forms of meat alternatives—primarily legumes, nuts and dairy products—is a requirement.

Based on USDA definitions, “lean or extra-lean meat” generally refers to white-meat poultry and particularly lean beef, such as 90 percent or higher ground beef.

Technically speaking, “lean meat” must have less than 10 grams of fat per serving, of which less than 4.5 grams can be saturated. “Extra lean meat” must have less than 5 grams of fat per serving, of which less than 2 grams can be saturated. Both definitions allow for up to 95 milligrams cholesterol per serving.

The sample weekly elementary school lunch menu provided by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services does not explicitly include beef. “Whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce” is the only menu item which could include beef. Other meat or protein items listed on the example menu include turkey for sandwiches, grilled chicken, breaded fish nuggets, refried beans and allcheese pizza.

Menu items mentioned in Obama’s heavily-publicized visit to an elementary school cafeteria which accompanied the standards change announcement involved ground turkey and cheese.

Despite the new standards’ apparent shortchanging of meat, and beef in particular, it is important to remember the new standards are nutritional benchmarks. What exactly is served at any given school to meet the standards is up to the health and food officials of individual school districts.

The new changes mostly focus on adding vegetable and fruit requirements to the existing NSLP standards. The new standards require fruit and vegetables be counted as separate food groups and an offering of a set minimum amount must be available for each at every lunch.

The new standards also set requirements for greater variety of fruits and vegetables, with minimum requirements for specific vegetable classes. How juices are counted has also changed.

The issue of how children will react to these new standards and the issue of food waste has not been addressed. The old NSLP practice of “offer vs. serve” will continue in high school levels and be an option in lower grades.

“Offer vs. serve” requires schools offer options from all five food groups: grains, meats/meat alternatives, dairy, vegetables and fruits. Students are required to select meals containing options from at least three of the groups. The new standards add the requirement that student selections must include a minimum serving of either fruit or vegetables.

The new nutrition standards and the addition to the “offer vs. serve” practice don’t come with any built in waste-prevention strategies. Students will still be able to throw away unwanted portions of school lunches they are required to take.

This has been a longstanding complaint of teachers about public school meal policies. Many public schools bar teachers on lunch duty from chiding students for wasting food on the grounds that it infringes on students’ freedom.

Whether offering more fruit and vegetable options, and requiring students to take at least one, will improve student nutrition is uncertain.

In his highly-publicized recent campaign, TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver changed the lunch menu of West Adams Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, CA, to include more salads and fewer burgers. The result was trash cans overflowing with vegetables. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor