What’s Happening to School Lunch?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it is lifting its strict limitations on calories from protein and grains that are part of the new National School Lunch and Breakfast program guidelines for the current school year. What does that mean for pork producers?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it is lifting its strict limitations on calories from protein and grains that are part of the new National School Lunch and Breakfast program guidelines for the current school year. What does that mean for pork producers?

The school lunch announcement seems to have come as a result of rumbling coming both from empty student stomachs and disgruntled legislators. Last month, Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) had written USDA stating their concerns about “strict calorie limits, protein sufficiency, increased costs and lack of flexibility to adapt the program to the individual needs of some students.” The senators said the rule could cause problems for students from low- income families, student athletes or students in school districts with limited operating budgets.

The original changes to the school lunch standards had been announced in January 2012, due to the national Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, or Public Law 111-296, says South Dakota State University Extension Nutrition Field Specialist Ann Schwader. She says the move to create stricter guidelines was motivated by the fact that the obesity rates among school children are growing, and steps were needed to reverse the trend. "These guidelines aligned school meals with the latest nutrition science, based on recommendations of nutrition experts and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans nutrition recommendations," she says. The new school meal patterns meet specific calorie ranges for children in grades K-5 (650 calories), 6-8 (700 calories), and 9-12 (850 calories).  

"The intention of the new school lunch guidelines is to ensure that almost all children receive at least one-third of their daily nutritional and energy needs," Schwader says.

As a parent, I’m here to tell you that the new rules had been a bit confusing. Early this fall, I received the following announcement from my son's high school regarding what seemed to amount to economic blackmail designed to encourage young people to eat fruits and vegetables. "The USDA has issued new school lunch regulations that have gone into effect this year. This year a student needs to have a fruit or vegetable on their tray, plus two other items to receive the $2.35 lunch price. If a student doesn't take a fruit or vegetable, or if a student does not want to take two other items, we will need to charge them for each individual item on their tray. If a student comes to the register without all the required items, we will let them know they need something else, and make a suggestion such as a fruit, veggie, or milk that we will have at the register." I will admit, it’s still a pretty cheap lunch, and I’m a pretty big believer in fruits and vegetables, but as my son noted, can you really force-feed teenagers? It was just plain weird--good intentions, but weird implementation. 

But having an item on your lunch tray does not equate to actually eating it. I happen to know women who work in school cafeterias. According to the “lunch ladies,” these required additional items may have come through on the student trays at the beginning of the lunch hour, but they ended the lunch period in the trash can. And one member of the cafeteria staff reported a dramatic increase in the number of students bringing their lunches.

Both pork and beef producers were concerned because the new requirements seemed to be limiting protein choices for students. The National Pork Board has been working on nutrition research projects to help ensure that pork is a part of the school lunch program, both now and in the future. At this time, meat remains an option for both breakfast and lunch in the USDA guidelines. As the National Pork Board points out, keeping meat on the menu is important, since research continues to show that fresh, lean pork products help people increase their intake of important nutrients, while adding variety to their diet.

It is important to note that USDA’s modifications to the school lunch requirements are temporary and only apply to this current school year. USDA said the revisions will allow school districts additional time to meet the new standards. Schwader says the latest modifications are being provided to allow schools more weekly planning options to ensure that children receive a nutritious meal every day of the week. According to the revisions, the students can eat as many grains and proteins as they want, as long as they are eating the allotted amount of calories put forth by the USDA.

So keep an eye on this issue, it’s not over yet. What do you think about the school lunch program modifications?  Share your thoughts in the “Comments” section, or email lora.berg@penton.com to start a conversation with your fellow National Hog Farmer readers.

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