School Lunch Makeover
For the first time in 15 years, the USDA has made significant changes to school meals in an effort to curb childhood obesity.
In January the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the final meal pattern regulations for school meals, as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, called the announcement a “red-letter day for American children.” In the following pages, we break down what the new meal pattern means for school meals and hear from directors about how they plan to meet the new requirements.
The New Meal Pattern Regulations: What They Mean to You
Final rule calls for increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains and a reduction in sodium.
Food-based menu planning approach: Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, food-based menu planning will be required for the National School Lunch Program. Food-based menu planning does not need to be implemented for breakfast until the 2013-2014 school year. The USDA says more than 70% of program operators currently use a food-based menu planning approach.
Plan meals using the following age/grade groups, K-5, 6-8 and 9-12: This requirement begins SY 2012-2013 for lunches and SY 2013-2014 for breakfast. The rule allows schools to use one meal pattern for students in grades K-8, as food quantity requirements for those two groups overlap.
Increasing the amount of fruit: Fruits and vegetables are no longer one food component in the NSLP. For lunch, schools must offer at least 2½ cups of fruit per week and ½ cup per day of fruit for students in K-8. For students in 9-12, schools must offer at least 5 cups of fruit per week and one cup per day. This requirement begins SY 2012-2013.
For breakfast, schools must offer 1 cup of fruit per day and 5 cups per week for all ages. This begins SY 2014-2015.
Schools are allowed, however, to offer vegetables in place of all or part of the required fruit component for breakfast, beginning July 1, 2014, so long as the first 2 cups per week of any such substitution are from the dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes) or other vegetable subgroups. Starchy vegetables, i.e., potatoes, may also be offered in substitution of fruits, but only after the requirement for non-starchy vegetables has been met. (See offer verses serve section for further information regarding fruit requirements.)
To meet the fruit component for both breakfast and lunch, the items must be fresh; canned in fruit juice, water or light syrup; frozen without added sugar; or dried. Whole fruit may be offered; however, no more than half of the per-meal fruit component may be juice.
Students must select a fruit or vegetable to make a reimbursable meal, starting SY 2012-2013 in NSLP. For breakfast, this is effective SY 2014-2015, which coincides with the increased fruit amount. Students are, however, allowed to take ½ cup of a fruit or vegetable, rather than the full component, to make a reimbursable meal under offer versus serve. Students are still allowed to decline up to two food components at lunch.
For breakfast, schools must offer fruit, milk and grains daily. When schools offer more than four items at breakfast, students may decline one.
Salad bars must meet new requirements under offer versus serve. If items on salad bars are not preportioned, staff must be trained to accurately judge the quantities of self-serve items to determine if the selection can count toward a reimbursable meal.
Increasing vegetables: Schools must offer more vegetables to all students. For K-8, schools must offer at least 3¾ cups vegetables each week and ¾ cup per day. For 9-12, schools must offer 5 cups vegetables each week and 1 cup per day. Schools must offer vegetable subgroups—dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes), starchy and other—during the course of the week at minimum requirements beginning SY 2012-2013. The following amounts are the new requirements for vegetable subgroups for lunches:
Dark Green: 1⁄2 cup (all ages)
Red/orange: 3⁄4 cup (K-8); 11⁄4 cup (9-12)
Beans/peas (legumes): 1⁄2 cup (all ages)
Starchy: 1⁄2 cup (all ages)
Other: 1⁄2 cup (K-8); 3⁄4 cup (9-12)
Beans and peas (legumes) can be credited toward the vegetable component. Green peas, green lima beans and green string beans are not considered part of this subgroup. Schools can serve fresh, frozen and canned vegetables.
Grains: For NSLP, in SY 2012-2013 and SY 2013-2014, whole grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered. During this time only, refined grain foods that are enriched may be included. Starting SY 2014-2015, schools must offer only whole grain-rich products. A whole grain-rich food must contain at least 51% whole grains and the remaining grain content must be enriched. Starting SY 2012-2013, schools must offer a weekly grains range. For K-5, schools must offer an 8- to 9-ounce equivalent per week and 1 ounce per day; 6-8, 8- to 10-ounce equivalent per week and 1 ounce per day; and 9-12, 10- to 12-ounce equivalent and 2 ounces per day.
For breakfast, weekly grain ranges and the half of whole grain-rich requirements begin July 1, 2013. All grains offered starting in SY 2014-2015 must be whole grain-rich. The weekly grain ranges are as follows: K-5 (7 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day); 6-8 (8 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day); and 9-12 (9 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day). Once schools meet the minimum daily grain quantity of 1 ounce, they are allowed to offer a meat/meat alternative in place of grains, which counts toward the weekly grains requirement. A 1-ounce equivalent of meat/meat alternative is equal to 1 ounce of grain. The final rule does not require a meat/meat alternative daily at breakfast.
Schools may count two grain-based desserts per week as part of the weekly grains requirement.
Meat/meat alternatives: Schools must offer a minimum amount of meat/meat alternative per day for NSLP beginning SY 2012-2013. For 9-12, that amount is a 2-ounce equivalent; for K-8, that amount is a 1-ounce equivalent. Schools also must serve a weekly requirement; K-5 (8 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day), 6-8 (9 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day) and 9-12 (10 to 12 ounces and 2 ounces per day).
Schools can offer commercially prepared tofu as a meat alternative. Mature beans and dry peas (kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans/chickpeas, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils) may be counted as meat alternatives. However, those beans and peas may not count for both a meat alternative and vegetable in the same meal.
Fluid milk: Schools may only serve fat-free flavored milk and fat-free or low-fat non-flavored milk, starting SY 2012-2013. Fluid milk must be offered with every school meal; however, students may decline milk under offer verses serve.
Water must be available in the service area, but water may not be offered in place of fluid milk for a reimbursable meal. This rule does not affect the nutrition standards for optional non-dairy drinks offered to students with special dietary needs.
Counting Calories: Breaking Down the Final Rule’s Dietary Specifications for School Meals
In addition to increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the new meal pattern regulations also added dietary specifications regarding calories, saturated fat and sodium. Here’s how those rules affect menu planning.
Calorie levels: There is now a minimum and maximum caloric range for each age group. For NSLP, this is effective SY 2012-2013. For breakfast, this is effective SY 2013-2014. The daily ranges are as follows:
For lunch: K-5 (550 to 650), 6-8 (600 to 700), 9-12 (750 to 850)
For breakfast: K-5 (350 to 500), 6-8 (400 to 550), 9-12 (450 to 600)
Saturated fat: Schools must offer breakfast and lunch meals that, on average during the school week, have less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat.
Sodium: Schools must meet a gradual reduction in sodium content of meals. This is being rolled out in three phases. Target one (SY 2014-2015) requires schools to reduce sodium content in lunches by approximately 5% to 10% from the baseline. Target two (SY 2017-2018) requires schools to reduce sodium in lunches by approximately 15% to 30% from the baseline. Target three (SY 2022-2023) requires schools to limit sodium content by approximately 25% to 50% from the baseline. (See chart on p. 27 for specific amounts.)
Tracking calories, saturated fat and sodium: State agencies will be required to conduct CREs every three years, starting SY 2013-2014, for both breakfast and lunch. The final rule requires state agencies to conduct nutrient analyses of school lunches and breakfasts as part of the review. The time period for nutrient analysis is one week, instead of the proposed two.
Trans fat: Food products and ingredients used to prepare meals must contain zero grams of added trans fat per serving (less than .5 grams per serving as defined by the FDA) beginning SY 2012-2013 for NSLP and SY 2013-2014 for SBP. This does not apply to naturally occurring trans fats.
Monitoring: State agencies must monitor compliance with the meal pattern and dietary specifications. The SMI review is eliminated. Beginning SY 2013-2014, state agencies must monitor breakfast programs. State agencies are given the ability to use fiscal action to enforce compliance with specific meal requirements.
Identification of reimbursable meal items: Beginning SY 2012-2013, schools must identify the components of the reimbursable meal at or near the beginning of the serving line(s).
Crediting: Effective SY 2012-2013, snack-type fruit or vegetables are no longer credited for reimbursable meals.
Fortification: The final rule disallows the use of formulated grain-fruit products to meet the grain and fruit components in breakfast program beginning SY 2012-2013. This rule does not prohibit the use of fortified cereals or cereals with fruit.
Child Nutrition Directors Say New Meal Regulations Will Not Be Hard to Implement at Their Schools
Operators say sodium reduction poses biggest challenge.
“We’re already there” is the most common reaction when talking to school nutrition operators about the new meal pattern regulations.
“Most of what is [in the new meal regs] we’re already doing,” says David Binkle, deputy director of food service for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “In fact, in our district we still have a lot of things that exceed even what the new regulations are. For us there wasn’t a whole lot of impact.”
Participation decline? The district’s foodservice department revamped its menus this school year to incorporate many of the proposed meal regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. There have been several reports that the district’s students were not accepting the new healthier menus and that participation had declined as a result. Binkle disputed published reports that participation has declined because students do not like the department’s healthier menus.
Binkle acknowledged that participation has declined nearly 3% since last year. However, he said the reasons behind that drop are not related to the healthier menus not being liked by students.
“When you look at the reason [for the drop in participation], most of it has nothing to do with the menu,” Binkle says.
One major reason is the district’s enrollment dropped 2.9%. “Clearly when you have fewer students you have less meal participation,” Binkle says.
Another factor that attributed to about 40% of the decline in participation was that 100 schools that were serving free meals to all students under Provision II are no longer qualified under that program. Binkle says that years ago, before Dennis Barrett took over the program, these 100 schools did not keep proper documentation that would allow the program to continue this year.
In another 50 schools, meal periods were eliminated because there wasn’t adequate staffing to supervise students during lunch. Finally, 30 schools moved from a year-round calendar to a traditional calendar. Meal counts for previous years included meals served to those students in year-round programs for months during which traditional schools were not in session. That has also decreased the number of meals served.
“Clearly, there were the changes to the menu,” Binkle says. “From what I see and what I hear now that students are getting used to [the new menus] and they have tasted it, they like it. Any time you make change, and major change like this, that’s an evolution that we have to go through. There’s going to be people now saying the meal is too healthy for the kids and it’s stuff they don’t know. The reality of this is the rest of the country is about to see what we’ve gone through [when they adopt the new meal pattern regulations]. We did this on purpose so that we could really get out ahead of this and start to work through it and adjust. I think the rest of the country is going to see a lot of the same impact [that we’ve seen this year].
“The other thing is the district went even further than what these rules are because the superintendent and the board made the decision to eliminate flavored milk. I was at a school two days ago and I met with the teachers. They said everybody has really embraced the reasons why we are doing this, but what they don’t understand is why the district continues to go further. They think that if the superintendent would just put the chocolate milk back then everything would be fine.”
Binkle says the district has strived to be on the forefront of making school menus healthier.
“We’re in the process of writing an even stronger nutrition policy,” he adds. “We are really 10 years ahead of other districts. What we are seeing coming out of the health department is that there has been about a 2½% decline in obesity in Los Angeles in children. What we are doing is clearly working. We went from this menu that was kid friendly, that was more grab-and-go-type of foods, to one that is much healthier with a lot more fruits and vegetables. Is it the right thing to do? Yes it is. Will we stay the course? Absolutely. What I keep hearing from the principals is that as we keep tweaking and teaching and encouraging the kids, more and more kids are participating.”
Binkle says the areas where the department still has to work to meet the new regulations are creating age/grade groups and meeting minimum and maximum calorie ranges.
Education is key, Binkle says, when adding new menu items to the rotation. He said many of the negative reactions from students to the new menus came from a lack of knowledge about what the meals were and not that the meals didn’t taste good. “I was talking to a teacher and she said this was a teaching moment,” Binkle says. “She was doing lunch supervision, and we had garlic hummus and pita chips on the menu. She said the kids were putting milk on it because they thought it was a cereal. They had never seen it before. Those are things you go through and learn.”
Fruit and veggie bars: Like Binkle, Karen Johnson, child nutrition director at Yuma Elementary School District in Arizona, says her district is already doing many of the things called for in the new meal pattern. “We offer fruit and veggie bars with dark greens, tomatoes and bell pepper,” she says. “We feel like we’re all stepping in the right direction already.”
Johnson says she puts chili powder on jicama sticks as a way to incorporate a vegetable students might not have tried before. She says the chili powder is a flavor students in that area of the country are used to eating so it entices students to try the jicama.
Another creative way Johnson’s team has boosted produce consumption at breakfast is offering breakfast tables instead of salad bars to add a homey touch to the morning meal. Managers decorate the tables with tablecloths and put the fruit in nice bowls. “The employees really enjoyed creating something of their own,” Johnson says. “And it was nice to have something different for breakfast that has more of a look from home.”
Johnson says she’s still working on how to fulfill the mandate that schools must show what components make up a reimbursable meal at the beginning of the service line. She says she’s not worried about that mandate, saying she expects the School Nutrition Association to offer suggestions. She also said she might work with the students in the art department to create visuals.
Reducing sodium: Johnson says the sodium levels “are on everyone’s mind,” which is something Karen Green, school nutrition director for Thomas County Schools in Thomasville, Ga., echoes.
“Sodium is the most difficult area,” Green says. “We’ve got to start looking at our recipes. We’ve set levels where we want to be in the coming years. We’ve got to start somewhere. For example, pizza. We said we will only accept [pizza] that has 800 milligrams of sodium or less next year. We’re working with our co-op group to look at the sodium level of entrées we are putting in our bids. We are also going to have fewer breaded items because there tends to be more sodium in those items.”
Green is not, however, concerned with the other regulations. She already offers sweet potato tots and fries, although she says the students prefer the white potato varieties. She also menus yam patties, romaine salad mix, broccoli and Southern favorites turnips and collard greens once a week.
Sweet potatoes: Dawn Houser, director of nutrition services at Collier County Public Schools in Naples, Fla., recently tried sweet potato fries after receiving a half a truck of commodity sweet potatoes. She says she was reluctant to try the item because they often become mushy on steamtables.
Houser says when the new breakfast regulations are implemented in two years, she is going to focus on offering dried fruit because the district offers so many grab-and-go breakfast meals and she doesn’t want the fruit component to become messy. She adds that with dried fruit the students can eat it at breakfast or save it for a later date.
One concern Houser has follows a recent report issued by the ACDA (American Commodity Distribution Association), which said that the number of fruits and vegetables that were going to be offered through USDA Foods was going to be lower than previous years. Houser says this is because farmers can get a better price for their produce in the commercial market.