by Marion Nestle
Oct 5 2012

Help protect the new school food standards, please

It seems crazy to think that USDA’s school nutrition standards–at least five years and two Institute of Medicine studies in the making—are at risk, but so they are.

My monthly San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column is on this topic.  I will post it this coming Sunday.

In the meantime, Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) writes:

As you may have heard, there has been some push back about the new calorie limits in school lunches. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) recently introduced the No Hungry Kids Act (HR 6418), which would prohibit USDA from implementing calorie limits in school lunches. There also have been a few campaigns among high school students who are displeased with the 850-calorie limit.

While we do not expect the No Hungry Kids Act to gain much traction, we also don’t want this negative attention to overshadow the wonderful work going on in so many schools across the country. We need your help to counter these efforts. Below are a few ideas for how you can help:

These resources and many others are available at You can also find additional talking points and resources at For more information or if you have any questions, contact

CSPI’s efforts deserve support.  Anything you can do to help, please do!

Addition: Obama Foodorama has a riveting account of how the Drudge Report drove media interest in the kids’ “We Are Hungry” video.

Update, November 2: House Republicans call for GAO investigation of USDA’s nutrition standards.

  • PrimeNumbers

    From reading wider on the subject, it would appear the CSPI is the problem, not the solution here.

  • Kevin

    Have issues been identified with students foregoing some parts of the meal because they don’t like it? Theoretically, it should keep them more full. The only thing that I can think of is that the changes occurred abruptly rather than a gradual implementation, and the assumption that students would eat everything given to them is fallible.

  • ckc

    See Obama Foodorama for some fact checking on the high school student campaigns –

    And the USDA response to the criticism –

  • Joe

    Again I will ask: Is the Congress of the United States the best entity to addesss this issue? Moreover is it even the role of the Federal Government to be involved in food and nutrition issues? No matter how anyone will respond to this point the answer in both cases is an emphatic no.

    If you need evidence then take a look at the school nutrition program over the last half century. For all of that time the meals served, overseen by Congress, were supposed to be healthy and provide essential daily nutrients. This begs the question why there was a need for the program to be revamped in the first place if it was already doing these things.

    The answer to that one is so Congress pat itself on the collective back for taking action even though it is utterly meaningless. Repeal it today!

  • frank

    the gov’t should be EXACTLY who should step in and improve children’s calorie intake in schools, especially when its gone out of control as it has!

  • frank

    this is clearly special interests (like the corn syrup and beef industries) trying to ruin things for profit again

  • Peggy Holloway

    Why would anyone support these guidelines? Calorie and fat restriction for children is a terrible mistake. Actually it is a mistake for anyone. Kids need full fat dairy and adequate meat along with plenty of green vegetables. A little fruit is OK, but not the quantity that is being pushed as healthy. What needs to be cut is the starch and grains. Eating low-calorie, high-carb is a recipe for ravenous hunger and extreme energy slumps within an hour or two and the likelihood that kids will go right out after school and scarf down more junk food. Menus with whole, unprocessed single ingredient foods with lots of fat, moderate protein, and reduced carbohydrates will provide satiety and energy throughout the rest of the day and will provide enough fuel for after school athletics, as long as they don’t provide them with gatorade and sugary snacks that will undo the good of the healthy lunch I have recommended.

  • Margeretrc

    It’s not calories that need to be limited in school lunches. These are kids. Limit sugar (from juice, flavored low fat milk, etc.) and starch and give them plenty of healthy, natural fats along with some good protein and veggies, and the calories will take care of themselves. We must be the laughing stock of countries such as France, where they have no national nutrition standards–for adults or children–and yet far lower rates of obesity, T2 diabetes, and heart disease. They just have a traditional way of eating that they don’t mess with. I’m on the side of the hungry kids–won’t be helping the CSPI (the organization that promoted trans fats, don’t forget) any time soon.

  • Actually, the biggest difference between France and countries like the US is that the French eat far smaller portion sizes. Dr. Nestle is right on the mark here.

  • Margeretrc

    I eat smaller portion sizes, too. Because I’m not afraid of fat. The reason the French eat smaller portions is because they eat plenty of satiating fat, enjoy their food, and stop eating when hunger is satisfied, not because someone tells them they’re not allowed to eat any more.

  • boomboomer

    I want all children to eat a BALANCED diet including all food groups in quantities recommended by the preponderance of scientific evidence. No faddish ideas about one food group or another, please. We’ve had enough of that with “ketchup is a vegetable”.

    Having said that, I had three boys who most certainly consumed more than 850 calories at a meal for the years they seemed to be growing an inch a week! However, I guess that’s enough for lunch as long as there’s something when they get home (but more likely chips and soda on the way home these days). Does anyone bring a lunch anymore, by the way? I never thought school lunch was very good and mostly packed them for my kids.

    Thanks for the suggestions, Marion. I will follow up. I’m sure you must have seen the picture in the NY Times today of lunch trays tossed in the trash with a headline to the effect that kids won’t eat fruit and veggies. There might be something to the idea of phasing this in, but isn’t it awful that we’ve allowed a culture to evolve that eschews decent food for heavily advertised, readily available junk.

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  • Michael

    MargeretRC: re: French nutrition standards: per Wikipedia (with references from Time magazine, the Guardian, and the BBC):

    * * * *
    In the 1970’s, the French government began to take steps to improve school lunch. The government guidelines for French schools dates back to 1971. The 1971 food recommendation guideline stated that each meal should contain raw vegetables (such as salads and fruits), protein in the form of dairy product or milk, cooked vegetables twice per week, and carbohydrates for the remaining days.[8] The 2001 food recommendation guideline, signed by the minister for national education, stated that the school lunches must be healthy and balanced. The guideline stated that there should be very little fat in the menu and meals must contain vitamins and minerals. Menus are posted for parents and the menu varies each day. The main course must contain meat, fish or eggs. [7]

    The cafeteria serves up five course meals, even for preschoolers.[9] Schoolkids eat the same thing as adults.[10] A school lunch in France contains: an appetizer, salad, main course, cheese plate, and dessert.[9] Bread may be accompanied with each meal. Students eat potato leek soup, carrot and bean salad, lamb with saffron, assortment of cheeses, and grapefruit. Each meal is accompanied with water. French schools do not have vending machines.[11]
    * * * *

    Far from laughing at us, it sounds like the French have been using something pretty darned close to the new USDA standards for 40 years. It would be interesting to try to come up with a study design to parse out how much of the difference in the secular trend in obesity between the two countries could be traced to the direct (fewer Calories consumed) and indirect (better eating habits instilled) effects of having these standards in place across the arc of the American obesity epidemic.

  • Michael

    Peggy, Margaret, and others: the new standards DO limit sugar and starch; the original proposal by USDA was to directly limit “starchy vegetables,” including potatoes, green peas, lima beans and corn. After a political furor, the formal limits were stepped back, but even now, USDA requires schools to meet all of the other requirements for fruit and vegetable servings before exceeding one cup of starchy vegetables per week if they want reimbursement by the federal government.

    The lesson here is to structure programs to be determined by independent scientific panels like the Institute of Medicine and the (shudder) “unelected bureaucrats”, isolating them from short-term political pressures.

    They’ve also taken steps toward at least reducing added sugars, by reducing the amount of sugar permissible in flavored milk by 38%, and only allowing fruit “juices” that are actually 100% fruit, instead of all those juice “cocktails” that are 10% fruit and 90% flavored sugar water.

    Taxpayers are paying for these lunches in order to make sure that children are nourished. Isn’t it government’s fiduciary responsibility, as trustee of those dollars, to make sure that the food that taxpayers are paying for is actually healthy? And shouldn’t “what’s healthy” be determined by scientists, not whoever happens to be running the local school’s kitchen?

  • Virginia Yohe

    As a parent, the on-the-ground reality that I see is that very little of the food in the public school cafeteria is anything other than refined carbs, refined oils and soy protein squished into some meat-imitation. Even 100 calories of this stuff is more than any child should eat. Processed food is so much easier for institutions to handle that the only real food in the room is the bowl of fresh fruit and the salad. If they were serving real food – food that you’d feed your family – they wouldn’t need calorie limits.

    Apart from the school lunch, you can send your child with string cheese and a foil pouch of microwaved small potatoes for snack. Schools shouldn’t have vending machines selling snacks.

    Love the video with the bears. Obviously, schools shouldn’t be selling soda pop or sports drinks either.

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