School meals overhauled for first time in 15 years
By Luke Baynes
Among the many disturbing moments in Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.” – a scathing indictment of Big Agra companies such as Monsanto Co. – is a scene that offers a striking illustration of why the United States ranks among the world’s fattest countries.
A poor Latino mother, struggling to make ends meet, explains that she feeds her kids greasy fast foods not because she wants to, but because it’s a matter of simple economics.
“Sometimes you look at a vegetable,” she explains, “and you say, ‘Okay, we can get two hamburgers for the same price.’”
Although the scene is far from a comprehensive explanation of the obesity problem in America, it poses a question that has vexed U.S. schools during the recent economic recession: If government-subsidized commodity foods such as hamburger patties are cheaper to serve than fresh vegetables, what financial incentive is there to provide children with healthier food options?
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 13, 2010, was the first attempt to answer that question.
Under the terms of the act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was given the authority to set new standards for food sold in school cafeterias. On Jan. 26, 2012, the USDA exercised that authority with the first overhaul of school meal standards in over 15 years.
“We really have to give credit on this to the Obama administration for really pushing, and for the USDA – they worked really hard to make these recommendations really in line with all that we’ve learned about nutrition in the past 15 years,” said Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager with Hunger Free Vermont. “This is the first change in nutrition guidelines in 15 years, but it’s also the first increase in funding for the meal program in a very significant period of time as well. If schools comply with these nutrition guidelines, they are eligible to receive an additional 6 cents per meal for the lunches that they serve.”
The stipulations of the new nutrition standards include:
- Fruits and vegetables must be offered as two separate meal components.
- Students must select a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable meal and may decline no more than two items at lunch and one item at breakfast.
- Half of all grains must be whole grain-rich.
- Tofu may be offered as a meat alternate.
- Zero grams of trans fat are allowed per serving for all food products.
Horton said that while the new law doesn’t expressly address sugar content in school meals, it effectively serves that purpose by setting calorie maximums for meals – an ironic development, considering that the National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, was based on providing minimum caloric content for school lunches.
“The whole reason that the school lunch program got started was to address hunger and malnutrition – a lack of calories,” said Horton. “In fact, the institution that first sounded the alarm about this was the U.S. Army, which was having to turn away thousands upon thousands of people during World War II because they were so malnourished.”
The conditions of the new school meal regulations won’t be enforced until July 1, 2012, but Scott Wagner, food service manager for the Williston School District, said he continually takes steps to improve the already healthy quality of his district’s foods.
“These regulations are going to be some changes for us, but it’s not going to be too drastic,” Wagner said. “We have a lot of healthy options already.”
Wagner said the biggest challenge will be in the vegetables food group.
“The issue for us is going to be getting kids to eat more vegetables, and a greater variety of vegetables,” he said. “The way that is it right now, they can refuse two components that we have to offer, and it can be any of them. Next year they’re going to have to take a vegetable component with their meal, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to get them to buy into eating vegetables every day.”
Leo LaForce, Wagner’s food service counterpart at Champlain Valley Union High School, said his school is ready for the new health regulations in terms of food health quality. The key financial consideration, he said, is the fact that the 6 cent subsidy only applies if a student purchases a “meal.”
“There’s really not a lot more we have to do. What it comes down to is more whether you count it as a meal or not when they’re coming through (the lunch line).” LaForce said. “The subsidies help with our food costs, obviously, so the way I’ve got it priced is if a student is purchasing just an entrée, and they’re not getting the items that come with the meal, I have it priced a little bit higher to compensate.”
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Although the stipulations of the federal school meal standards are wide-ranging, an unaddressed issue concerns ground beef additives – specifically, the so-called “pink slime,” aka lean finely textured beef, which is allowed under current laws.
“For the time being I’m not using any more USDA ground beef until they have said that in the future they are going to make some other options available to us,” said LaForce, “and until that happens, I’m going to be using local ground beef.”
Horton said “pink slime” should be taken with a grain of salt – and not the iodized form used for seasoning.
“There’s a built-in conflict, because the USDA is responsible for helping farmers and all of these interests in Big Agra business that they work with, and at the same time, they’re responsible for ending hunger and malnutrition,” Horton said.
“On the other hand,” she continued, “if the school nutrition program wasn’t run by the USDA and wasn’t tied in with satisfying those very important interests in the United States, I think that the school nutrition program would have been cut years ago.”
But Horton, a Williston resident, spoke with pride about the efforts of her local community.
“Williston schools have been very strong. I would guess that most of these regulations are already being met,” Horton said. “The larger your school food service is, the more you can take advantage of economies of scale, so the easier it is going to be to make these new regulations work financially.”