I am lucky to have amazing readers. I love how you teach me about things. It started out last year when I first started blogging. I didn’t know a thing about school lunch (evidence: I decided to eat it for a year) and, well, thousands of you educated me about the ins and outs of regulations, food politics, and ingredients. Eventually I started questioning my own food consumption and now I’m even gluten free. I credit you, my readers, for helping me find the answers.
Occasionally I get an email from a reader that I want to share. I’m going to share readers’ emails and questions and try my best to answer them. Of course just as before I don’t pretend to have all the answers. If you feel so inclined, pitch in and help me answer a question or two. I hope this will be a regular feature.
Question from a reader:
Every school I have worked in, without fail, has given the exact same portion size to each child regardless of age, dietary needs, or interest. In one school teacher lunches were also the exact same size.
For example, a kindergarten student receives the same portion size as a 5th grader. For years I wondered how it is possible that the
FDAUSDA has ignored the most basic constructs of food health which is caloric intake balanced with the food pyramid. A kindergartner does not need a 450 calorie lunch and inevitably most of the food gets thrown away OR is eaten so quickly due to time constraints that the child develops a bad habit of swallowing food and not tasting it.
I have wondered about this before and blogged about it briefly in September last year. The lunches I ate all year last year were the identical lunches that children between ages three and five were receiving as well as children as old as twelve. My son is closing in on age three and there’s no way he could chop through a Salibury steak patty in ten minutes, not to mention buns, fruit cups, etc.
Consulting a USDA document (from the year 2000 — so it could have been updated. please let me know if you can find anything more recent), I found that when meal size is determined differently depending on meal planning approach. There are a few ways to calculate nutrients in a typical school lunch. First, there is the Traditional Food-Based Menu Planning Approach. According to the USDA, “schools must comply with specific component and quantity requirements by offering five food items from four food components. These components are: meat/meat alternate, vegetables and/or fruits, grains/breads, and milk. Minimum portion sizes are established by ages and grade groups.” Then a chart appears:
Differences in portion sizes by age have been circled in blue.
And the second part of the chart (that got cut off when I took screen shots):
Under the Traditional Food-Based Meal Planning Approach, there is indeed differences in recommended portion-sizes across the age groups that typically reside inside of the average elementary school. One size does not fit all.
What about the Enhanced Food-Based Menu Planning Approach? It is broadly defined as “a variation of the Traditional Menu Planning Approach. It is designed to increase calories from low-fat food sources in order to meet the Dietary Guidelines. The five food components are retained, but the component quantities for the weekly servings of vegetables and fruits and grains/breads are increased.” Their chart looks very similar to the other one:
Um, whoa. Here’s where I’m getting confused. When I first read this chart, I thought requirements were going down as kids aged. But that did not compute. The far right column is an extra “option” for K-3!? So what do the kids need to be eating exactly? This smells fishy. If any of you know exactly what is going on here, let me know!
The second half of the chart:
It’s really no wonder that the USDA’s regulations are hard for people to understand.
And then there’s the Nutrient Standard Menu Approach (along with the Assisted Nutrient Standard Menu Approach). This approach uses “approved computer software to analyze the specific nutrient content of menu items automatically while menus are being planned. It is designed to assist menu planners in choosing food items that create nutritious meals and meet the nutrient standards.” And its chart looks something like this:
Curious “Optional K-3” column appears again.
Mrs. Q’s Answer: It looks like the schools that the reader has worked in have either employed the Enhanced Menu Approach of the Nutrient Standard Approach to plan their menus, which is how schools with a K-6 population to offer the same lunch to a wide age range.
Correct me if I’m wrong here.