Protein not a priority in new school lunch program

Sep 21, 2012

A new USDA mandate has changed the school lunch program, creating what government officials consider a more balanced, less expensive meal, but some parents, students and even nutritionists, have a slightly different view.

The new program requires students to include a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, or it will cost them more, charging them at the a-la-carte price, instead of the regular lunch. While they can not force the student to eat the fruit or vegetable, food waste has also become a hot topic with the school lunch debate.

In addition, there are some saying it is yet another example of the federal government inserting its power in a place it doesn’t belong. Criticisms have also been raised against the calorie limitations and the “one size fits all” theme that surrounds the guidelines.

Students are limited on calories, protein and salt and there is an emphasis on phasing in whole grains.

According to reports, protein during the breakfast meal is nonexistent. Calories are capped at 500 for grades K-5, 550 for grades 6-8 and 600 for grades 9-12. The maximum amount of protein allowed, per-week, for freshmen through seniors, is 12 ounces.

The administration ushered in the new school meal requirements this fall as a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the First Lady as part of her Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

The nation’s leading state agriculture officials have requested that the federal government review and revise the new school lunch and breakfast guidelines to better meet the individual and changing nutritional needs of children.

Meeting in Des Moines, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) approved a policy statement declaring the group’s opposition to “restrictive dietary guidelines on meat protein and calories served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast program that do not take into consideration individual needs, especially those of physically active and growing students.”

Introduced by North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring during NASDA’s annual meeting in Des Moines, the policy statement calls the new guidelines “well-intentioned, but falling short of providing a comprehensive policy for educating students in healthy living.”

Goehring pointed out that an 8-year-old needs 58 grams of protein per day, but the school lunch guidelines supply only 14 grams.

“Children need sufficient calories and protein for growth and mental alertness,” Goehring said. “A hungry child cannot focus and function at school and is at a disadvantage to those who have enough.”

He also said the guidelines unintentionally hurt disadvantaged children the most.

“More than 65 percent of the children eating school lunch and 84 percent in the breakfast program receive free or reduced-price meals,” he said. “Unlike children whose parents have the means to supply them with additional nutrition, especially protein, the children getting subsidized meals have no such resources and for many of them, school breakfasts and lunches may be the most nutritious meals they get that day.”

The policy statement says that overly restrictive dietary guidelines in the school lunch program will not solve the serious, national problem of childhood obesity, and that a more comprehensive approach, including dietary education and increased physical activity, is needed to help students adopt a healthier lifestyle.

NASDA is comprised of the commissioners, secretaries and directors of agriculture of the 50 states and four U.S. territories.

USDA recently announced $5.2 million in 18 states and one territory to help support schools as they “strive to serve healthy food, provide nutrition education, and create an environment focused on healthy eating and physical activity.”

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton told a reporter in a press conference that schools are in the “painful process” of implementing new guidelines and there is a lot of “uncertainty” relating to the new guidelines. But Thornton said they aren’t hearing a lot of pushback from schools about the rules.

She also told reporters on the call that whether a school is in North Dakota, New Mexico or Florida, each meal doesn’t have to be the exact same.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan also added that one area of concern was about students taking smaller amounts of food. “It’s not just what to eat, but how much to eat.” According to USDA officials, waste has actually been less with these new guidelines.

In an attempt to reverse the rule, Rep. Steve King, R-IA, and Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R–KS, introduced the “No Hungry Kids Act” which repeals the new standards, prohibits USDA’s upper caloric limits, and will protect rights of parents to send their children to school with the foods of their choice, according to a joint release.

Throughout the August work period, Huelskamp heard complaints from many constituents about the new standards, especially that the new regulations were leaving student-athletes undernourished before high-heat, high-intensity athletic practices.

“The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food,” said Huelskamp. “The USDA’s new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste, and unaccomplished goals. Thanks to the Nutrition Nannies at the USDA, America’s children are going hungry at school.”

“For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches,” said King. “The goal of the school lunch program was—and is—to ensure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn. The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s “Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,” was interpreted by Secretary Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parent’s know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor