Ever wonder about requirements for school food programs? Part 1

Two major changes have updated school food program requirements, in nutrition and community access.

USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

School lunches have definitely become a mainstream public interest. This is demonstrated by TV shows that focus on improving lunch offerings, programs like FoodCorps, which place service members in schools to work towards a healthier generation of children, and the rise of movements like Farm to School. Michelle Obama is a familiar face in this landscape, spearheading the “Let’s Move” campaign and supporting the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. 

How do these efforts improve school lunches and environments? This series of articles will focus on two of the initiatives contained within the HHFKA, their purpose and how federal legislation has shifted the school food environment on a national level. Information for this article was gathered in an interview with the Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon. 

The first of these arms of the HHFKA are the updates to the National School Lunch Program nutrition standards. According to Concannon, the updates to the nutrition standards were the first major changes in decades. These changes include aligning school breakfast and lunch offerings with evidence based research for the best nutritional impact. Implementing these standards included increasing the mandatory serving of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; reductions in sugar and salt; and all dairy being non-fat or 1 percent milkfat. The standards also include age adjusted caloric limits. 

Adopting the new nutritional standards was, and continues to be no small feat. The plan was to roll out the new standards over a period of four years. Currently, Concannon stated that 95 percent of all schools are meeting the standards. Some adjustments have been necessary in order to come into compliance. For instance, waivers have been issued for the whole grain requirement, where schools literally could not access products made with whole grains. School food suppliers have, in large part, now caught up with product offerings and most schools are now able to access products that fit the requirements. 

Some schools have had difficulties implementing the new sodium standards. Undersecretary Concannon has suggested, and shared examples that using spices in replacement of sodium has had success across the country. Reducing sodium has been shown to reduce the instances of high blood pressure and cancer, which is the motivation behind the standard. 

One benefit to implementing the new standards that allows school food programs more flexibility is that the standards must be met across the entire week, not on a meal by meal basis. For instance, if school lunch featured a higher sodium item on Monday, that item could be averaged across the week, so long as the other featured items were lower in sodium to assist in averaging the sodium content out across the week.

For many students, school meals are the primary source of nutritious foods in their lives. Ensuring that the foods served in school meals are nutrient dense is a priority, and the new nutrition standards are a demonstration of a step in improving school meals. Read on for part two which outlines another change to encourage participation in school food programs.

Michigan State University Extension supports healthy meals for all of Michigan’s children during the entire year. For more information about school food programs read part two of this article.

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