New School Lunch Guidelines

Did you see that the USDA is planning to announce new school lunch guidelines? I nearly choked on my tea when I read the headline over at  Fed Up with School Lunch on Friday morning.

I was skeptical when I opened the link. We all know how well the existing regulations are serving our children, but I was pleasantly surprised by the new guidelines:

Limit starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas to one cup (two servings) per week.

Finally! Schools will now be required to offer nutrient and vitamin rich vegetables in place of the calorie dense but nutritionally weak French fries, instant mashed potatoes, canned peas and baked beans.

Reduce sodium levels by more than half over the course of the next ten years.

According to this USA Today article, the average high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of sodium for high school-aged children is between 1,500 and 2,300. One school lunch contains the maximum amount of sodium many high school students should consume in the whole day! The new regulations would limit sodium in high school lunches to a much more reasonable 740 milligrams, and even less for younger children whose recommended daily allowances for sodium are even lower. Nice work!

Establish calorie maximums.

You might recall that I reported in Pet Peeve: Unhealthy School Lunches that current regulations set a minimum number of calories, but do not set a maximum number of calories:

So while the school is required to serve at least 667 calories per week to its K-6 grade students, it can offer WAY more calories than that. And as the calorie count goes up, so does the allowable fat amount because the fat restriction is a percentage of the total calories provided.

According to the USA Today, the new calorie allowances would be,  “For lunch: 550 to 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8; 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.”

This improvement is positive on several levels: First, it breaks the calorie requirements down by age group. This allows the requirement to more closely match the actual calorie requirements of the students because older children typically require more calories than do younger children. Second, the allowances are more in line with the USDA’s actual recommended daily allowances for children (depending on age and gender, the maximum number of calories allowed by the new regulation is roughly one third to one half of the recommended daily allowance of calories. Third, it places a cap on the number of calories the school can offer, limiting the ingestion of empty calories and, instead, encouraging schools to focus on nutrient and vitamin-rich foods.

For more information on the recommended daily allowance of calories for children see TABLE 3. Estimated Calorie Requirements (in Kilocalories) for Each Gender and Age Group at Three Levels of Physical Activity in Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, Chapter 2 Adequate Nutrients Within Calorie Needs at

Limit milk offerings to only 1% or fat free milk.

Well, this is a start. Previously, schools were permitted to offer milk with any fat content. Now they are required to reduce the fat content, but they can still offer flavored milk (chocolate and strawberry) Hopefully the calorie requirements above will further force their hands, though. Chocolate milk, at 158 calories per half pint, would eat up about a quarter of the calories allowed in a lunch for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. I still wonder why we couldn’t offer water. It’s free and we all need it. My guess is that we have the dairy lobby to blame for this one.

Increase the variety of vegetable offerings.

During each week, schools must offer at least one serving of each of the following types of vegetables: orange vegetables (including carrots, sweet potatoes, and summer squash), green leafy vegetables, beans, and starchy vegetables (you might also notice that starchy vegetables are also limited to one serving by the “Limit starchy vegetables” requirement). The hope here is to increase students’ exposure to a variety of vegetables. Certainly a step in the right direction. Schools will also be required to offer one serving of fruit with breakfast and 1.5 servings of vegetables at lunch. The current requirement is a weekly one, which means schools could theoretically offer all of the required fruit and vegetable servings in on meal while the rest of the week’s meals are devoid of any fruits or vegetables.

Increase whole grain offerings to at least half of the total grain offerings.

The current regulations do not require whole grains at all, which helps explain the pasty white landscape of today’s school lunch. At least half of the pasta, buns, rolls, and rice would be replaced with whole wheat, whole grain, or brown versions immediately and all grains would be whole grain two years after implementation. Yay!

Minimize trans fat

The new regulation requires schools to use foods that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving, as indicated on the food’s nutrition label. As long as schools use the prescribed serving sizes, we should be good here. Because a food can actually have up to a half gram of trans fat per serving before the manufacturer is required to list the grams of trans fat on the label, if the school uses large quantities of these foods, they could unknowingly be serving more than acceptable levels of trans fat.

You can read the entire proposed regulation here.

The USDA is seeking input from the public on the new requirements. You can tell them what you think on at!documentDetail;D=FNS-2007-0038-0001. Your responses must be received by April 13th. If all goes well, the new requirements should be in place (and on our children’s lunch trays by the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

Despite a couple of shortcomings, the new regulations look promising. It’s too bad that the regulation does not put a cap on sugars, for example, but hopefully the calorie cap will help toward that end. I hate to get too excited, but this one could really work.


USDA calls for dramatic change in school lunches in The USA Today,

Good news in school food on Fed Up With School Lunch,

USDA Unveils New School Lunch Standards on Food Safety News,

Exclusive: USDA to Announce Healthier New School Lunch Guidelines on ABC News/Health,

How Will the New USDA Guidelines Improve School Lunch? in Health,

USDA announces new nutrition standards for school lunch program on Nourishing Thoughts,

7 CFR Parts 201 and 220, Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Programs; Proposed Rule in the Department of Agriculture’s Federal Register Part III,

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One Comment on “New School Lunch Guidelines”

  1. Lorraine Says:

    That’s a step in the right direction!

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