School Lunches

The latest statistics predict that today’s younger generation will have shorter and less healthy lives than their parents and grandparents for the first time in modern history.  Obesity and the form of diabetes linked to it are taking an even worse toll on America’s youths than medical experts had realized. Where do we begin to reverse this frightening epidemic?  The Institute of Medicine in a report in May of this year identified schools as the focal point for change.

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in over 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It strives to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. The program objective is to provide a nutritious, well-balanced lunch for children in order to promote sound eating habits, to foster good health and academic achievement and to reinforce the nutrition education taught in the classroom. The School Meals Initiative law mandates that school meals provide 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for lunch and be consistent with Dietary Guidelines for Americans and caloric goals.

The Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the Federal level. At the State level, the National School Lunch Program is usually administered by State education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive USDA foods, called “entitlement” foods. Schools can also get “bonus” USDA foods as they are available from surplus agricultural stocks.  States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of various foods purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus USDA foods schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices.

Commodity processing allows State distributing agencies and eligible recipient agencies such as school districts to contract with commercial food processors to convert raw bulk USDA commodities into more convenient, ready-to-use end products. USDA began commodity processing in 1958 to permit agencies to maximize the use of donated commodities. Most of the commodities processed through the program go to schools participating in the National School Lunch Program.

By participating in Commodity Processing, State distributing agencies and recipient agencies find that they can: Stretch their commodity dollars by ordering lower-cost bulk products; eliminate back-hauling charges because USDA vendors deliver commodities directly to processors; increase their variety of end products; reduce labor costs and cash outlays for food preparation; and reduce storage costs.

Congress enacted a law in 1995 known as the School Meals Initiative which requires school meals to comply with the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This law established specific minimum standards for calories and key nutrients that school meals must meet. The USDA implemented the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) to provide healthy school meals that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. All school food authorities participating in the National School Lunch Program must undergo a School Meals Initiative (SMI) review on a cyclical basis.

Results from the latest (2009) SMI Report indicate that only 45% of the 2000 plus schools required by law to complete the survey actually did.  The results from the schools that did as required by law indicate that there is no change over the last decade when it comes to improving the National School Lunch Program.

    • Less than 8% of the schools involved in the review met the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yes you heard me correctly – less than 8%.
    • Less than 30% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for fat intake
    • Less than 7% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for fiber intake
    • Less than 10% of the schools involved in the review met the guidelines for sodium intake

New Guidelines

The USDA has set new guidelines for school meals for the first time in 15 years. The guidelines double the amounts of fruits and vegetables in school lunches and boost offerings of whole grain-rich foods. The new standards set maximums for calories and cut sodium and trans fat, a contributor to high cholesterol levels.  Schools may offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties and must assure that children are getting proper portion sizes.

The new standards will be largely phased in over a three-year period, starting in the 2012-13 school year. As an example of a new meal, the USDA said an elementary school lunch could be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip and soft margarine. That lunch would replace a meal of a hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low-fat chocolate milk.

School Lunch Makeover: Before and After

Before After
Fruits ½ – ¾ cup per day (fruit and vegetable combined) ½ – 1 cup per day
Vegetables ¾ – 1 cup per day (with weekly amounts of specific types)
Meat/ meat alternative* At least 1-2 oz per day Grades K – 5: at least 1 oz per day, 8 – 10 oz equivalents per weekGrades 6 – 8: at least 1 oz per day, 9 – 10 oz equivalents per weekGrades 9 – 12: at least 2 oz per day, 10 – 12 oz equivalents per week
Grains* At least 1 serving per day, and 8 servings per week across all grades Grades K – 5: 1 oz per day, 8 – 9 oz eq per weekGrades 6 – 8: 1 oz per day, 8 – 10 oz eq per weekGrades 9 – 12: 2 oz per day, 10 – 12 oz eq per week
Whole grains Encouraged, but not required At least half of grains served should be whole grain-rich
Milk 1 cup per dayA variety of fat contents allowed 1 cup per day of low fat (1% fat) or nonfat milk.Only nonfat milk can be flavored.

 

Calories maximums (calculated as daily averages across week) None Grades K – 5: 650 caloriesGrades 6 – 8: 700 caloriesGrades 9 – 12: 850 calories
Sodium No limits Target for 2014 – 2015 school year:Grades K – 5: less than 1230 mg per lunchGrades 6 – 8: less than 1360 per lunchGrades 9 – 12: less than 1420 per lunch
Fat Saturated fat: < 10% of caloriesTrans fat: no limits Saturated fat: < 10% of caloriesTrans fat: 0 g

*One ounce “equivalent” may be required for some foods in the meat and grain groups, because a different amount is needed to provide the “equivalent” nutritional value

Where can you get more information on school lunches?

Bag Lunch Options

Children bringing lunch from home can also participate in the NSLAI. We have listed several sample menus which include all 5 food groups and the total number of stars.  These sample menus were suggested by parents and accepted by children. For more recipes, visit http://www.parents.com/kids/nutrition/lunch.

Fish Shaped Tuna on Whole Wheat – 25 Stars
Food Group
Stars
Item
Vegetable
5
10 baby carrots
Fruit
5
1 small plum
Dairy
5
include fat-free milk/yogurt
Grain
5
whole wheat  bread/14 cup whole grain Goldfish
Protein
5
tuna
Additional
0
2 oz low-fat ranch dressing

 

Pretzel Kabobs – 25 Stars
Food Group
Stars
Item
Vegetable
5
shelled edamame
Fruit
5
½ cup mandarin oranges
Dairy
5
fat-free chocolate pudding
Grain
5
include a whole wheat roll
Protein
5
turkey and low fat cheese rolled up, skewered with pretzel sticks
(may also include a slide of ham)
 
Hole New PB&J – 23 Stars
Food Group
Stars
Item
Vegetable
5
¾ cup cherry tomatoes
Fruit
5
½ cup pineapple chunks
Dairy
5
Include fat-free milk or yogurt
Grain
5
whole wheat mini bagel
Protein
3
peanut butter
Additional
0
4 mini oatmeal cookies