Do New School Nutrition Guidelines Even Matter?


Last Thursday, long awaited changes to federal school nutrition guidelines were announced. It’s been 15 years since the last changes and, in that time, we’ve reached a point where 32% of children 6- to 19-years-old, many of whom eat breakfast and lunch at school, are overweight or obese. This has been a long time coming.

The changes will:

* lower calorie requirements
* eliminate trans fats
* increase the amount of allowable fat
* cut back on starchy food and reduce sodium levels over a ten-year period

They will also require two servings of vegetables at lunch, a serving of fruit at both breakfast and lunch, and that half of all grains served be whole grains.

Sadly, though, as I wrote about at The Family Kitchen, sugar is not on the chopping block, which means that flavored milks are still on the menu.

I hate to complain about such an important step forward, but (yes, there’s a but) I can’t help but wonder about this milk issue. Is it an example of the kind of concession necessary to push through game-changing legislation or a sign that the new guidelines are, well, not enough?

Before the specific guidelines were released, Chef Ann Cooper, also known as The Renegade Lunch Lady and the woman in charge of the Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District, said to the Washington Post that her guess is corporations will “find a way to make processed foods fit the guidelines.”

That may seem overly pessimistic (and perhaps she feels differently having seen the guidelines?), but given that most school kitchens are run by poorly trained staff and poorly equipped to do more than store and heat frozen foods, you’ve got to wonder. And that’s not even to mention the complication added by the USDA’s School’s/Child Nutrition Commodity Program in which cash strapped schools can buy cheaper, subpar surplus foods, some of which don’t even meet the quality and safety standards set by fast-food chains. Yuck.

Anyone deep in the school lunch system can tell you that it’s broken. Hey, anyone not deep in the system can tell you that. While I welcome any positive change, are these new guidelines enough? Or do we have to completely rebuild the system from the ground up. If so, can that happen through federal legislation or do we need local activism?

Or maybe all of the above.

I don’t have the answers, but I think we should all be asking. And so does Ed Bruske who, in a recent article on Grist, pointed out that the new school nutrition guidelines fail to take into account “that schools should not merely feed hungry children, but show them there’s another world of food besides the junk food culture they grow up in. It’s not just a matter of putting calories in kids’ bellies, not when food insecurity and obesity exist side-by-side. This is really a question of social justice for our times. Do the disadvantaged children for whom the subsidized meal program is designed deserve the opportunity to eat the same quality food as children from families who can afford to shop at a farmers market?”

He goes on to propose that “serving real food in school takes radical changes on the local level, not merely tinkering with standards originating in Washington. That means an attitude change and a commitment on the part of local school officials, parents, and elected leaders.”

I can hardly disagree. How about you?

If you’re interested in reading more on the recent changes to school nutrition guidelines, check out New School Nutrition Guidelines: Pink Milk Still on the Menu.


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