Don't rush to judgment on new school lunch rules

by Dana Woldow, 2012-09-17

The new school year has been underway for just a few weeks, but it is never too early for some people to try to pass judgment on the new school lunch regulations. Almost before students had taken their first bite of the sweet potato, kiwi or collard greens now showing up on school lunch trays as a result of the Healthy Hunger Free Schools Act, folks were declaring the new rules a win - or a loss - for student health. Parents in rural New York are already gathering signatures for a petition to be sent to the state objecting to the new rules, while The California Endowment, a private health foundation, has created a series of ads in English and Spanish promoting the message that "healthier meals mean healthier kids." But buried deep in the last paragraph of an Associated Press article was the best synopsis of the situation; it concluded that "just weeks into the school year, it's probably too early for final grades."

The new school meal rules from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) call for more, and more varied, vegetables, larger servings of fruit, and limits on grains and meat; for the first time, there are also maximums set on daily calories for a school lunch. The changes are intended to boost the healthiness quotient of school food, as well as address the childhood obesity epidemic. Even before school started, it was easy to predict that some kids would find the new meals a little skimpy compared to what they were used to getting in the cafeteria.

At least one member of Congress, Representative Kristi Noem (R-SD), has sent a letter to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, raising "questions about the process USDA has in place for determining the impact of these new requirements." Noem says her concerns stem from hearing from parents in her state that this year, kids are not getting enough to eat at school.

Although the Congresswoman, who is hoping to be reelected to a second term in November, does not mention this, the new limits on how much grain and meat can be served to kids weekly are probably also a concern in her home state of South Dakota, with its 44 million acres of farmland raising mostly wheat, corn, beef and pork (the state claims to have more cattle than people.)

There have also been complaints from some school districts that students are just throwing the required servings of fruits and vegetables into the trash, and again, it didn't take a crystal ball to be able to predict that would happen. For students who are used to seeing only corn and tater tots, the new bounty of dark orange and green leafy vegetables may not look appealing.

Experts point out that new vegetables may have to be offered at least 10-15 times before wary kids may be willing to try them. Did you try kale or lima beans or Brussels sprouts the first time they were offered to you? Change takes time.

Some parents of student athletes have complained that the new 850 calorie limit for high school meals isn't enough for their active teenager, although it is unclear how many students have the metabolism of the 6'5" 210 pound high school football player the AP article cites as an example of kids who are left hungry by the new school meals.

Because schools which offer government-paid meals for low income students via the USDA's National School Lunch Program can also serve breakfast and after school snacks, there is no reason why any student should have to go more than a few hours between meals during the school day.

But let's be realistic - the new school lunch rules were not intended to benefit student football players, who may burn twice the calories of the typical teenager, and whose parents and sports coaches are savvy enough to provide extra high protein snacks as needed to keep these athletes fueled. The regs were intended to address the far more prevalent problem of child obesity, which many say was not helped by the former lack of any upper limit for calories in a school meal.

As Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the New York Times before the new rules were passed, "School lunches are based on an outdated idea that hungry kids only need calories. But what hungry kids need is healthy food."

Before anyone chimes in that limiting calories in school lunch will not solve obesity, let's just stipulate that, all by itself, no, it won't. Neither will more exercise, alone.

Or more nutrition education, alone. Or better health care for low income kids, alone. Or less junk food advertising, or limits on portion sizes of fattening foods, or posting calories on menus, or any of the many separate actions that communities around the country are trying to help drive down obesity numbers, alone.

No one single thing - alone - will reverse the obesity epidemic. It has to be everything, done together, and introducing children to healthier food at school, right from the very first day, must be a major part of that. For a five year old entering the school cafeteria for the first time, being introduced to jicama sticks or kiwi fruit is just like meeting a new teacher, or venturing onto the playground with 50 other whirling dervishes, or participating in show and tell - it is one more exciting part of "big kids school", one that may be a little scary at first, but that becomes more familiar with time, until eventually it is welcomed as a friend.

As an Iowa school dietitian reported, "One little boy was asking for purple apples. He meant plums."

The new school food regulations shouldn't be judged just by their effect on teenagers. While it is sound public health policy to offer all students only healthy choices at school, it is the youngest students for whom these changes are likely to have the biggest impact. Older students who for a decade have been used to eating daily pizza, french fries, and sugary desserts for school lunch, are not likely to immediately embrace brown rice and chard, although the more adventurous, and health conscious teens may be willing to try them.

It is the 5 and 6 year olds who are the real targets here. Even if these youngsters are seeing a lot of fast food or junk food at home, they have no expectation of seeing such delights in the school cafeteria. For them, the only school food they know is what they are seeing this year, and while it may look unfamiliar, at least they don't have the mindset of older students who feel that their rightful heap of chicken nuggets has been snatched away.

It will likely take years to see the full effect of the new school food rules. As today's kindergarten students move through their school years, the hope is that they will choose fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria every day as a matter of course, because they taste good, they are healthy, and that's what the rules are. They won't know that the rules were ever any different.

Audrey Rowe, an administrator with the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services, said recently, "If kids are experiencing fruits and vegetables at school, they will ask for them at home. If we can get them to learn to live a healthier lifestyle, hopefully we'll see a healthier nation."

It may be a lost cause to try to change the eating habits of high school students, but for the youngest kids, hope spring eternal. As one Iowa parent reported "In 2 weeks, my kindergarten daughter has tried more fruits and veggies than she has in 5 years at my home." It's too early to say for sure, but that sounds like a good start.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.