Sep 4 2011

New school nutrition law takes youths’ health to heart

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: My kids are heading back to school, and I’m braced for another year of fighting about what they get for lunch. The school says there is a new law that makes things better. Will it? 

A: There is indeed a new law. Getting it implemented, however, will take some doing. With much fanfare, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. But unless your children attend one of the 1,250 schools that applied for and won an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge, they might graduate before seeing its benefits.

 That’s because the law has to be turned into regulations, an interminable process that has barely begun.

 Significant changes

But never mind the law’s odd title. It is meant to do good things. It increases school meal eligibility for low-income children. It encourages local farm-to-school networks and school gardens. It expands access to free drinking water in schools (yes, this is necessary in some places).

Most important, the law gives the USDA the right to set food standards for school meals.

Now the USDA can specify numbers and sizes of food servings, rather than nutrient percentages. This should make it easier for schools to serve foods, not food products, and offer more and larger servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The USDA can also apply these standards to all foods sold during school hours – breakfasts and lunches, but also “competitive” foods sold in vending machines, a la carte lunch lines and school stores. California is already doing this, but the new law takes it national.

As always, the devil is in the details. The USDA’s proposed rules for implementing the law take up 78 pages of microscopic type in the Federal Register. Because the USDA worried about the effects of the new rules on meal acceptance, participation rates, practicality and cost, it made some compromises.

Its standard for added salt seems generous, and it did not set one for added sugars. The USDA assumed that if other standards were followed, there would not be much room for sugary foods.

Except for milk. The USDA standards require milk to be low-fat but allow it to be flavored (translation: sugar-sweetened). Otherwise, the USDA says, children might not drink milk and will not get enough calcium.

Chalk this up to dairy lobbying. Schools account for more than 7 percent of total milk sales in the United States, but more than half of all flavored milk.

Lobbyists in motion

The proposed standards have set other lobbies in motion, too. One proposal is to encourage children to try new vegetables by restricting starchy vegetables – white potatoes, corn, green peas and lima beans – to one cup per week.

Makers of french fries and produce lobbying groups went to work, and 40 members of Congress have demanded reconsideration. The beef and poultry industries want the proposals to place more emphasis on high-quality, nutrient-rich proteins that offer all essential amino acids in a serving (neither protein nor amino acids are lacking in American diets).

The USDA’s proposals elicited more than 130,000 letters of comment, and the agency now has to deal with them. Officials say they have not even started on the rules for competitive foods.

The USDA must issue final rules by December 2013 and will undoubtedly give schools even more time to implement them. This gives lobbyists plenty of opportunity to create mischief.

Congress might backtrack. Under pressure to cut spending, the House of Representatives added a rider to its agriculture spending bill urging the USDA to scrap the proposals. The House must think the additional 6 cents per meal authorized by last year’s bill was overly generous.

Much is at stake here. School food matters because schools set an example. Schools that offer poor-quality food because it is cheaper are telling children that what they eat is not important. If a school promotes sales of sodas and snacks, it reinforces the idea that children are supposed to be eating junk foods.

Effects on learning

I have much sympathy for what school food professionals are up against, financially and bureaucratically. Nevertheless, I’ve visited plenty of schools – even in low-income communities – where children are served grown-up food, eat it happily and are eager try new tastes.

Successful school food makes the political personal. The cooks cook. They know the students’ names. They make it clear that they care about what the kids eat. They are invariably backed up by a principal committed to the belief that what kids eat affects their health and learning.

The USDA is trying to make it easier for schools to serve healthier meals. Write your congressional representatives to support the proposed school food standards.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books, and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail comments to food@sfchronicle.com.  This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 2011.

  • http://beccasaid.wordpress.com Becca

    Can’t you bring your own lunch?

  • Anthro

    @Becca

    Yes, that’s an alternative for some and that is what I did for my own children, but many people today (rightly or wrongly) don’t seem to have the time to pack lunches. If they did, they might not necessarily be nutritious, but rather full of chips and cookies or highly salted pre-packaged foods (Lunchables). If schools are mandated and funded, they have the opportunity to make sure that all children get nutritious food.

    One thing I’ve learned from this blog is that my own well-educated experience may not be the norm and that good policy leads to higher public health outcome–which benefits everyone in the long term. If school lunches are adequate, you are still free to pack your own, but at least kids whose parents are not so enlightened, will have good good as well.

  • Eric Esterling, MS RD

    For the record, Massachusetts recently passed regulations regarding competitive foods and beverages which are among the strictest in the nation. A link to the final regulations can be found here: http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=eohhs2terminal&L=5&L0=Home&L1=Government&L2=Laws%2C+Regulations+and+Policies&L3=Department+of+Public+Health+Regulations+%26+Policies&L4=Proposed+Amendments+to+Regulations&sid=Eeohhs2&b=terminalcontent&f=dph_legal_nutrition_standards&csid=Eeohhs2

    Although the regulations are strict, many schools in MA already conform to similar voluntary guidelines set forth by Action for Healthy Kids ( http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/ ) as documented for Massachusetts in the A-List directory:
    http://www.johnstalkerinstitute.org/alist/

    Voluntary guidelines did pretty well. In Massachusetts, as of 2008, 57% of Massachusetts middle and high schools already did not offer soda, cookies, candy, or similar treats on school grounds during school hours.
    http://www.mass.gov/Eeohhs2/docs/dph/com_health/school/csh_factsheet_obesity_2010.pdf
    The state regulations will bring the other 43% into the fold.

    For those concerned about the bottom line for schools, there’s a nice podcast from Yale’s Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy with Dr. Patricia Crawford about these kinds of changes:
    http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/podcasts.aspx

    P.S. @Becca, I can bring my own lunch, but the school lunch program is very much about those who cannot. There are many. For more information see: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/

  • Anthro

    @Eric

    Thank you for the information and links. Massachusetts is often ahead of the curve on things health-related and I hope this will be one of those cases where they set the tone and others begin to follow. Very encouraging news!

  • MargaretRC

    No, I will not be writing to anyone to support the proposed standards. I’m all for kids getting healthy meals that include plenty of non starchy vegetables, and don’t include added sugar, but kids also need plenty of good healthy fat, including saturated fat, for their brains and quality protein for their growing bodies. They should be drinking whole milk, which tastes great without added sugary flavorings, and eating other whole foods like eggs, cheese, and meat, along with veggies and fruits in their natural form, not canned with sugar. Those are the standards I’d like to see implemented.

  • Joe

    It never ceases to amaze me that to many the solution to things is more government regulation. I thought the school nutrition program had been mandated to serve healthy foods for decades. What has happened in the recent past to change this? Were those regulations not enough?

  • Linda Duffy

    Low fat milk for kids?!??! Insane! Low-fat and fat-free dairy is just industrial waste being passed off as food. Like soy. The growing brain of a child NEEDS fat!

  • Anthro

    @Linda

    That applies to infants up to two years of age. That is when the majority of brain development occurs. Besides, milk is hardly the only source of fat for children.

  • Anthro

    @Margaret

    Could you cite some references for these views that are completely at odds with accepted medical/scientific standards?

    I hope you will take the opportunity to read Marion’s books, especially her new one (coming out next year) about calories.

  • Anthro

    @Joe

    Marion has posted numerous times about school lunch legislation; however I can’t find “school lunch” as a category in the right hand column, but if you look through some of the categories such as “obesity in kids” or “legislation”, you may find some answers.

  • Margeretrc

    I’m all for school children who might not otherwise get them getting nutritious meals, but I disagree with the USDA as to what that is. Fresh (not canned with sugar, please!) fruits and plenty of non starchy vegetables, yes, minimal added sugar, yes. But the USDA is still towing the low fat line and that is wrong for everyone, but is especially wrong for kids. Kids need plenty of good fats, especially saturated fat for their developing brains and the new cells they are creating every day. Kids should be drinking whole milk, which tastes great without sugary flavorings, not low fat milk, especially not low fat milk that has been sweetened with flavorings. And kids need quality protein like eggs, cheese, and meat for their growing bodies. What they don’t need a lot of is starchy vegetables, grains, and sugar and if their meals are based on that, while limiting fat, many of them are going to grow up with injured metabolisms, just like a huge majority of the grown up population! This is what I should/would write to my congressman–but I doubt it would make a difference.