Would You Like String Beans With That?

USDA changes to school lunches increase veggies and grains while decreasing fats and salts

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Whether ketchup counts as a vegetable or not, kids should be seeing healthier options in school cafeterias soon, following the first overhaul of school lunch standards in over 15 years.

The USDA has announced new requirements for school lunches based on the new law, Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Approximately 32 million children and teens participate in school meal programs, according to the USDA.

"Feed your children healthy, balanced meals every day."

“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The USDA used recommendations from an Institute of Medicine panel to make changes that range from offering more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to reducing food options with high fat.

Students will now have a selection of fruits and vegetables available every school day, as well as more whole grain foods each week.

Only skim and low-fat milk will be offered, and standard lunches will have approximate calorie limits on them according to the age of the students eating them.

The standards also focus on reducing saturated fats, trans fat, salt and overall portion sizes.

Eve Pearson, a registered and licensed dietitian who has worked in school food service previously, said the changes are welcome - but they're not enough.

She was disheartened, for example, that she could legally include pizza on school menus when its nutritional value is less than stellar.

"I'm not saying pizza is always bad. I'm just saying that eating it every day certainly doesn't meet the nutrition requirements of a child," Pearson said. "If pizza is available every day, a child will choose it every day."

She said the real issue is that kids may only be "offered" healthy foods - but opt for the unhealthy ones.

"If you offer a kid an apple and chicken nuggets, they're not going to eat the apple," she said.

The USDA estimates the new standards will cost about $3.2 billion across the next five years, which falls well short of the initial cost estimates when the bill was proposed and passed.

Four other components to the bill include increased funding for schools for lunches, changes to the pricing structures so schools can afford to follow the new standards, changes to food offered elsewhere in schools (such as vending machines), and training and technical assistance for schools.

The changes will phase in starting during the 2012-2013 school year and stretching over three years.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 2, 2012
Last Updated:
February 3, 2012