Good news in school food

In case you missed this, I thought this article in USA Today was really cool — USDA calls for dramatic changes in school lunches

Ths USDA is issuing new standards for school food. The new requirements:

  • Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and green peas, to one cup a week.
  • Reduce sodium in meals over the next 10 years. A high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Through incremental changes, that amount should be lowered over the next decade to 740 milligrams or less of sodium for grades through 9 through 12; 710 milligrams or less for grades 6 through 8; 640 milligrams or less for kindergarten through fifth grades. 
  • Establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time. 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.
  • Serve only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk. Currently, schools can serve milk of any fat content.
  • Increase the fruits and vegetables kids are offered. The new rule requires that a serving of fruit be offered daily at breakfast and lunch and that two servings of vegetables be offered daily at lunch.
And it continues:

Over the course of a week, there must be a serving of each of the following: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy and other vegetables. This is to make sure that children are exposed to a variety of vegetables.

  • Increase whole grains substantially. Currently, there is no requirement regarding whole grains, but the proposed rules require that half of grains served must be whole grains.
  • Minimize trans fat by using products where the nutrition label says zero grams of trans fat per serving.
I’m thrilled. I guess this is the first time nutritional standards have been raised in 15 years. I’m happy that somebody is paying attention to the lunchrooms. The question remains how do we fund it?


In other news, here are three stories showing some great things happening in schools in our country!

1) Here’s a story out of Connecticut — The subject is the menu: Three schools serve in a pilot program for a new approach to lunch — Sounds like the kids love the new food!

2) In NYC, other good news — MELS, an NYC School Where Food Policy Is Part of the Curriculum — Very innovative.

3) And a NBC video newstory, which I embedded below, out of California (The Bay Area) — Organic School Lunches — Partnering with Revolution Foods, kids are getting organic school lunches for the exact cost of the federal reimbursement rate. I didn’t think that was possible!

And here’s the video:

View more news videos at:

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19 thoughts on “Good news in school food

  1. Those are some great guidelines – and yes, how to fund it is the key question. It is interesting (and surprising) that there is not currently a standard for milk. I've always been at schools (growing up and during student teaching) that served 1% and fat-free milks. I did notice that there wasn't a timeline given for these changes, which would be interesting to see.

  2. People need to be very real about these standards. You can't legislate food quality. Increasing vegetable and whole grain servings sounds great, exept these are things kids like to eat least of all, and school cafeteria's have a very hard time presenting vegetables on a large scale in a palatable form. Perhaps not surprisingly, the USDA wants to cut back on the things kids like most of all to eat, such as potatoes, which are their second-favorite food after pizza. But the worst food of all isn't being regulated–that would be sugar. There are still no standards for the amount of sugar schools can serve in their meals, although the committee that drafted these proposed regulations said that by lowering calorie requirements for meals, increasing the allowable fat, and requiring more vegetables and whole grains, sugar would be less room for sugar. Except, of course, for chocolate and other sugary flavored milk products. This represents a major concession to the dairy industry, because kids will still be able to get those as breakfast and lunch.

  3. i hate that whole milk is so vilified. if you are going to drink milk, whole is the way to go, especially for children. skim milk is all sugar, as opposed to a balanced food like whole milk. disappointing.

  4. Lots of good stuff here! I will say, however, that I'm not concerned about the fat content of milk. I'd rather they have 2% unflavored than fat free flavored. I wish chocolate milk wasn't an option every day.

  5. i have mixed feelings. these standards look like it was taken directly from lobbyists. a sprinkle of sugared milk here (and sorry, but broccoli has more calcium than milk, so really milk's presence is only because of the huge milk lobby)… a spritz of soybean oil there (because butter has saturated fat you know which will kill you …. much more slowly than the fats in rancid soybean oil)… whole grains over yonder (because high quality grassfed animal products… well, we can't fund that because of the feedlot lobby)…

    sorry to be so cynical, just feeling like food is more politics in this country than not.

  6. It's not perfect, but better than what we have now! I'm with the couple of anonymous posters on the milk thing especially: children need the type of fat found in milk. Not more sugar.

  7. Both Anonymous posts have it right. Politics, not food. This is why I would never have my child eat a school lunch.

  8. It all sounds good, but what does this actually mean in practice? Are schools going to be required to meet these guidelines by a certain year? What if a school can't because of a lack of funding, or other issues?

    Besides the other concerns noted here, I have to echo the one about the quality of the vegetables. I remember the few veggies we were served in school — they were limp, overcooked and usually came from giant cans. If there was any flavoring, it came from salt. My suspicion is that most schools won't be able to do better than this with the level of funding, equipment and staff that they have, and kids will be served veggies at their absolute lowest quality. If this is their main exposure to vegetables, are we setting them up to dislike them?

  9. Revolution Foods offers a school meal for the amount of the government reimbursement (about $3) but that is 2-3 times more than most schools are able to spend for the food portion of the meal; the rest of the government reimbursement gets "eaten up" (pun intended) by the cost of labor to heat and serve the meal, count and claim the kids for reimbursement (as required by USDA regs), and clean up after, plus overhead (utilities, pest control, cost of processing meal applications and filling out endless forms to get those government reimbursements, etc.) Typically a school district would spend about 45% of their budget on food, another 45% on labor, and the rest on overhead. Spending every penny of the $2.72 reimbursement on the food means there is $0 left to pay for someone to work in the school caf, serving the food, counting and claiming the meals, and all the rest of it. This is why Rev Foods' clients are almost always charter schools like the one shown here (which use non union teachers and can therefore just make a teacher do lunch duty in the caf) or private schools which can include lunch for each student in the very high tuition they charge. It is not a model that works in a regular NSLP public school.

  10. The district I work for just introduced sweet potato fries! They were yummy. Also, it appears to follow most of these standards already, with the exception of the milk. Salad and fruit, along with a hot veggie is offered with every lunch and fruit are a part of the breakfast. The issue is making these offerings appealing. An orange that is not ripe enough to peal easily is not appetizing. Limp green beans just look icky.

  11. Thanks for all these comments. I'm trying to make sense of the regulations myself. I don't have all the answers. It seems like a positive step though.

    Regarding Revolution Foods, I didn't know that. The video makes it sound like they are doing it for the same amount of money.

  12. Ditto comments about milk. Serve whole milk and skim milk but scrap the sugar milks. Drinking 8 oz of whole milk every day is better for a child's body than drinking 8 oz of HFCS or sugar filled and dyed skim milk.

  13. I appreciate Dana's commentary on how Revolution Foods fits (or doesn't) into the funding. I was wondering how that was possible, when all the discussion on TLT indicated it wasn't.

  14. My school district (San Francisco Unified) is located just across SF Bay from Revolution Foods' headquarters in Oakland CA. RF has been trying for years to have a presence in our schools, but when they bid on the district meal contract a year or so ago, their bid was higher than the winning bid – for some parts of the contract it was 50% higher – and district policy requires that the bid be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. RF did provide meals for some of the charter schools here, but as of this year, all but one of those schools has returned to the district food service because it just wasn't working out for them with RF.

    SF schools have been steadily improving the quality of our school meals since 2003, and our meals meet the Gold Standard under the USDA's Healthier US Schools program. We also already meet most of the new proposed requirements for school meals which the USDA is trying to finalize right now. Our meal provider, Preferred Meal Systems, has been lowering the sodium content of our meals, and while we are not yet at 640mg for all ES meals, we are already a whole lot closer than just a few years ago, and it certainly won't take us another 10 years to get there. We already have the fresh fruit, whole grains, dark orange and leafy green veg, and potatoes went from being served 4 days a week 5 years ago, to being rarely seen these days. Our meals have been trans fat free for several years. Our middle and high schools have salad bars and the elementary students get a variety of fresh raw veggies individually packaged a few times a week. And yes, we have done a plate waste study and it turns out the kid do eat their veggies!

    Not that everything is perfect – not by a long shot. The meals are delivered frozen and are heated up on site. Our schools mostly do not have working kitchens, so cooking on site is not a possibility. However, we have hopes of passing a bond to raise the money to build a central kitchen so that our food could be cooked right here in SF, and be delivered to schools the day after it is cooked (just as RF does.)

    But all of this takes money – a LOT of money – and even serving previously frozen food cooked elsewhere is expensive when you are trying to meet the new nutrition standards. And it's not like Preferred started out offering the healthier food we now get – we have had to push them (hard!) for every single improvement, but each year we have made progress, so even though it started out as baby steps, over time those steps add up. Most of the meals we serve are prepared by PMS especially for our district, to meet our higher standards, and we pay a higher price for them (but still significantly less than what RF charges). The fresh fruit, whole grains, and increased veggies in our meals contribute to the deficit run by our Student Nutrition Services department, and that deficit has to be paid out of the school district's general fund, leaving less money for teachers and textbooks.

  15. (Part 2)
    Just yesterday, California's new Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a longtime cross country and fitness coach and supporter of healthier food for kids, issued a statement bemoaning the cost of meeting the new meal standards (.64 per day per kid for breakfast and lunch) as compared to the funding Congress authorized to pay for it (.06) and said "The United States Department of Agriculture has proposed cordon bleu standards, but so far Congress has provided only fast-food funding." And today the SF Chronicle has an editorial on the same topic
    Okay, sorry, I didn't mean to go on at such length. It's just that whenever you read of some kind of "miracle" happening in school food, you need to dig a little deeper to get at the truth. The truth in this case is that no one – not RF, not our school district, nor anyone else's – is able to provide healthier food for the same cost as crappy highly processed food. Better food costs more! It is misleading for anyone to imply otherwise, and the sooner we admit this, and accept it, the sooner we can move on to the more important issue of how we are going to pay for it. School districts shouldn't have to choose between meeting kids' academic needs and meeting their nutritional needs.

  16. Hallelujah!
    I almost missed this post (didn't check the blog all weekend, then got sidetracked by the girl scout cookies and lunch wrap up). Yes, there are a million things inherently wrong with the suggestions they're making. But all in all, it's still a vast improvement from the potatoes and nuggets that kids are routinely eating these days. It's easy to get discouraged because they're still serving liquefied ice cream and calling it milk, and the quality of these vegetables in the "exposure experiment" will probably be sub-par at best, but still.

    Baby steps, guys. They're striving toward lower sodium, regulated calories, whole grains, and restrictions that will prevent the tendency to use starches as a crutch. That's already enough to bring a satisfied smirk to my face.

    I can only hope that by the time they manage to skim down the sodium content on their ten year plan, we'll have new politicians ready to crack their knuckles again and figure out how they can further improve the food. If we all keep screaming about the sugared milk and canned veggies, people will continue to listen.

    Even if the crappy sugar milk hasn't been banned by the government, enough pissed off parents at your own kids' schools might be enough to make the schools take the matter into their own hands.

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