2017-05-19 / Schools

School food policy change sparks debate

Proponents say kids throw away food; opponents argue healthier options are beneficial
By Hector Gonzalez

PUSH BACK—School officials say federal nutrition standards had become so stringent that making meals the students would eat was difficult. But children are eating more fruits and vegetables and reaping the rewards of a balanced diet. PUSH BACK—School officials say federal nutrition standards had become so stringent that making meals the students would eat was difficult. But children are eating more fruits and vegetables and reaping the rewards of a balanced diet. Preparing healthy school lunch menus that kids like is a constant trial-and-error process, local food services directors say.

Toss in mandatory federal nutrition standards and their job gets even tougher.

“It is a little hard to provide food that the kids will like and still hit all the (nutrition standards) they’re asking you to,” said Patrice Parr, food services director for Simi Valley Unified School District. “We do taste tests. We involve the students to find out what they like. We talk to them, and we also ask the ladies that serve the food, especially if it’s a new menu item.”

But not all cafeteria food passes the test. Take the wholewheat macaroni and cheese offered for lunch at Simi Valley elementary schools, which ends up being too dry for most students’ palates, Parr said. Many of the dishes end up in trash bins.

So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it was relaxing some of the nutrition standards for the National Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price meals for low-income children, Parr and other local food services directors had no qualms.

The new guidelines take effect in the 2017-18 school year.

One requirement thrown out by the USDA’s May 1 action was a sodium content standard that would have capped the amount of sodium in school meals to 1,080 milligrams per day, averaged over five days. The requirement was set to go into effect in July as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by former first lady Michelle Obama and established strict nutritional standards for school meals.

The sodium standard “would have created a greater burden in menu planning and meeting nutritional requirements,” said Stephanie

Gillenberg, nutrition services director at Oxnard Union High School District. “Currently, our breakfast sodium requirements, averaged over a five-day week, are (less than or equal to) 640 milligrams daily, and lunch sodium requirements are (less than or equal to) 1,420 milligrams daily. This new (USDA) ruling allows us to keep those requirements.”

Although the USDA’s decision to relax regulations doesn’t represent a sea change for the federal lunch program, Parr said, it gives food services managers like her a little bit more flexibility when preparing menus.

Pasta dishes, for example, no longer need to be whole-grain only. Also, the USDA is now allowing districts to serve flavored milk with 1 percent fat, instead of strictly nonfat.

Food waste

Food waste was one stated reason behind the USDA decision, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement May 1.

“If kids aren’t eating the food and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition, thus undermining the intent of the program,” he said.

But critics, including the American Heart Association, immediately trashed the changes, saying the USDA decision rolls back improvements made in school lunch menu offerings.

“Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes,” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a news release May 1. “Their meals are now lower in sodium and calories and offer more whole grains. In addition, young people are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. We don’t understand why the USDA and some members of Congress want to fix something that clearly is not broken.”

Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit representing school food services professionals, said districts need “flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable.”

“We don’t want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away,” Montague said in a news release. “Some of our schools are actually using that food waste as compost. That shouldn’t be happening.”

USDA officials said this month’s changes were the result of “years of feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said.

“A perfect example is in the South, where the schools want to serve grits,” he said. “But the whole-grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole-grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Although it’s too early for any studies to show whether the nutrition standards set in 2010 are improving children’s health, removing the regulations risks “serious health consequences for our kids,” the American Heart Association says.

“Children who eat high levels of sodium are about 35 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure, which can ultimately lead to heart disease or stroke,” the nonprofit stated.

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