Monday, October 01, 2012

Agriculture Department Responds To Criticism About New School Meal Standards

The Department of Agriculture on Monday offered some insight and advice about the new school meal standards that are mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010.  In a post on the agency's blog, Dr. Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, describes a few things schools are doing during the transition period to make it easier to accommodate the new guidelines.  She also gave advice to parents to help children adjust to the changes, pointing out that many schools are still offering standard cafeteria fare, albeit with healthy updates: "Instead of fried chicken nuggets, now kids are getting baked ones."

School meals have become a flashpoint for political controversy lately, with two Republican lawmakers introducing a bill to repeal the nutrition standards, and partisan controversy over the issue of plate waste and calorie limits in school lunches getting plenty of media attention, fueled by repeated headline links on the Drudge Report.  About 32 million children in 100,000 institutions participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Thornton's post was titled "Ask A School Meals Expert: How Are Schools Helping Students Adjust to The New School Meals?"  She wrote:

"We’re continuing to answer questions we’ve received from folks about the improvements to school meals that started this school year. One concern we’ve heard is that students who may not be accustomed to eating particular foods may throw them away. We know it is important that students get the calories and nutrition they need to stay alert and energized through the day and schools are doing a number of things to make sure this happens.

First, it’s important to know that while some of the new school meals are different, most schools are continuing to serve old favorites—with a few healthy updates. For example, instead of fried chicken nuggets, now kids are getting baked ones and instead of fully-loaded pizza slices, schools are now offering slices with lower-fat cheese and more veggie toppings.

Schools can also allow kids a certain amount of flexibility to choose only the foods they intend to eat. We refer to this as “offer vs. serve” (OVS).  OVS allows students to decline one or two of the food items offered in a school lunch. Schools can decide how to implement OVS including which grades and how many items can be declined.

Still, we don’t want students to make a habit of skipping unfamiliar fruits and veggies and other new healthy items. That’s why USDA is encouraging schools to get students involved in guiding and shaping the food selections offered by their school districts. Students across the country are participating in taste testing sessions, providing feedback on meals to food service staff, and trying the new foods and recipes in the cafeteria every day.

We know that many parents are already making changes at home to help the whole family eat healthier. We recommend reviewing school menus with kids at home and working to incorporate foods that are being served at school into family meals as much as possible. In many schools, parents are working through their Parent-Teacher Associations to take a lead role in helping kids adjust.

Adapting to the changes may be challenging at first, as students are introduced to new flavors and foods in the cafeteria. But as you can see there are many ways to make the transition easier.

Check back here frequently as we continue to answer questions about the new and improved school meals. Also, please don’t forget to check out the web site we created to help folks understand the meal changes and how they make the school day healthier."