by Marion Nestle
Oct 7 2012

School lunch rules caught up in politics

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  For links to appropriate resources and what to do to defend the new standards, scroll down to Friday’s post.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: Can you please explain to me why the USDA is restricting the number of calories in school lunches. It’s bad enough that school food is so awful that the kids won’t eat it. Now are they supposed to go hungry as well?

A: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at a question like this or at the uproar over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards. As Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart pointed out in his not-to-be-missed commentary on Sept. 27, if kids aren’t eating the food because they hate it, the calorie limits hardly matter. And if kids are hungry, the remedy is simple: Eat the food.

The new lunch standards hardly call for starvation rations. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders get up to 650 calories. The maximum is 700 for kids in grades six through eight, and 850 for high schoolers. All kids can have extra servings of vegetables. This ought to be plenty to get most of today’s kids – sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity as they are – through any school day.

Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at the “No Hungry Kids Act” introduced by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Their act would repeal the USDA’s hard-won nutrition standards and prohibit upper limits on calories. As King explains, this is to undo “the misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Let me briefly review where these standards came from. In 2004, Congress required school districts to develop wellness policies, but left the details up to the districts. In part to resolve the resulting inconsistencies, Congress asked the USDA to develop new nutrition standards. In turn, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to study the situation and make recommendations.

The institute’s 2009 report called for aligning school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but reducing saturated fat, sodium and calories. It suggested encouraging students to try new vegetables by establishing weekly requirements for various kinds, but to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which required the USDA to set nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools, not only at breakfast and lunch, but also at any time during the school day. The USDA used the institute’s report as a basis for its proposals.

These, you may recall, got the USDA in trouble with lobbyists for businesses that supply French fries and pizza to schools. The Senate intervened and amended the agriculture spending bill to say that none of its funds could be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs” or “require crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.” The results include no weekly limits on French fries; a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

With these allowances in place, the USDA released the new standards in January. Most observers viewed them as an important accomplishment of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

What about student outrage that the new meals leave them hungry? As a strong supporter of student activism, I applaud students getting involved in protests. Their actions have already persuaded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tell kids to eat healthy snacks if they are hungry.

Perhaps student activism around calories will be a first step toward advocacy for more substantive goals for their education and wellness: more and better paid teachers, better educational materials, more sensible testing, better quality food in schools, and instruction in how to grow, harvest and cook food.

But where, I wonder, are the adults in all of this? Childhood obesity is not trivial in its consequences for many kids, and school food ought to be a model for how healthy, delicious food is normal fare.

Schools in which adults – principals, teachers, school food personnel and parents – care about what kids eat and act accordingly are setting examples that what kids eat matters just as much as what kids learn.

It’s shameful that elected officials would attempt to undermine the health of America’s children for partisan political purposes.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at E-mail:

  • Alexandra

    The very foods that are truly healthy and satiating: fat and meat, are nearly eliminated and in their place are lots of sugars… let’s not lie to ourselves and each other, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are ALL sugar… carbohydrates, regardless of “complex” or “simple” are sugars. Sugars are not satiating and drive or even distort true appetite.
    An 800 calorie meal of fats (including healthy satuated fats,) protein and a moderate amount of fruits and veggies will not leave kids hungry like a sugar meal will. All food must “be” something.. when they pull fats and meats “out” they put “in” the only category that’s left: sugars. We are on a disasterous path…feed your kids from home even if you must cut elsewhere in your budget to afford it… what could be more important than human health?

  • To understand why Rep. King of Iowa is beating the anti-school-lunch drum so hard, look no further than the fact that he is running to retain his seat in Congress against Christine Vilsack, the wife of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. His attacks virtually always include Tom Vilsack’s name as the villain. This isn’t about obesity or hunger or kids’ nutrition or health at all – it’s about a politician using all those issues to try to tarnish his opponent.

  • Steve

    Sure 850 calories should be enough for any couch potato. However for those kids who play sports and are staying after school for a few hours a practicing its hardly enough. You actually think 850 calories is a reasonable amount for a 100 pound girl who does not participate in school sports? Is it an equally reasonable amount for a 200 plus pound football player who participates in rigorous after school practice?

    And this all avoids the primary issue, an issue created when our government decided to get involved in our diets in the first place by removing fats and telling us to gorge on so called healthy grains. Didn’t the McGovern board proclaim that with their dietary guidelines for Americans that they eliminate both obesity and heart disease by the turn of the century?

    Its just so typical of the left to try to nanny the country. And when their attempts to bring us in line fail do they reverse course? No, they double down and try harder!!!!

    The ONLY solution is education, and you cannot educate people to make the right choices when you cannot admit that what you have been preaching from the mid-70’s on has been the wrong advice to begin with.

    I agree with much that is written on this blog, but you get lost when you think things like the soda size limit or blanket calorie limits for school lunches will help. Nanny states have always failed, and always will in spite of their well meaning nanny leaders.

  • KE

    As for the uproar, I think it hilarious. Fear of the “Nanny state” is a fancy way for self-centered, individualistic, narrow-minded loonies to avoid connecting the dots of life’s bigger picture. The “No Hungry Kids Act” is obviously a joke. However, Hueltramp’s challenge to the USDA is not such a terrible thing. USDA’s cafeteria menu seems to need an overhaul 🙂

  • Crider

    Still hungry? Eat some vegetables!

  • Joe

    So much for open debate as I see my earlier comment was deleted.
    Should I be surprised?

  • joe

    My apologies for my error! My comment is in the Oct 5 post.

  • Margeretrc

    I agree with @Steve and @Alexandra. It’s not just about nanny stating. It’s about pushing the wrong guidelines, as has been done for the past 50 + years. When the guidelines were first proposed, there were scientists who raised some very vocal dissent. They were ignored then, and are still being ignored now. Kids need fat and protein–actually we all do. You, of all people, Dr. Nestle, should know that. Instead they’re being forced to drink milk from which some or all of the fat has been removed and substituted with sugar to make it more palatable. Protein in the form of meat has been reduced–2 chicken nuggets? Or even 4? C’mon, that’s not enough to sustain a toddler, let alone a school age child. And I’ve got news for you. If you are hungry for fat and protein, vegetables are not going to fill the hole–not for long, anyway. If we want our kids to become more active, we need to nourish them with more of the foods that will make them want to move, and less of the sugar (and, yes, whole grains are sugar in the body) that will sap their energy and make them hungry.

  • Take comfort that the Representative leading the push against the school lunch program changes, Steve King, is the target of every animal welfare group in the US.

    Does it matter in Iowa? A state not known to be friendly to the animal welfare movement?

    When it comes to being for or against dog fighting, yes, it does. Iowans like their dogs, and Steve King has come out against federal anti-dog fighting laws.

  • Steve, 850 calories for lunch should be sufficient for athletes. We assume that they also get breakfast, after school snacks, and dinner. Or do you expect their only meal to be lunch?

    If the athletes are perishing on the fields, the athletic departments can provide cereal bars, cheese, nuts, and fruit as afternoon snacks for the athletes, so they have additional energy in time for practice.

    We eat too much protein. We don’t need it, and the impact on the environment is excessive. Keep your silly paleo diets and realize that we live in a finite world that can no longer support 16 ounce steaks and all the cheese burgers we want.

  • Alexandra, “The very foods that are truly healthy and satiating: fat and meat, are nearly eliminated and in their place are lots of sugars… let’s not lie to ourselves and each other, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, are ALL sugar…”


  • Sarah

    @Shelley- Thank you!!
    You said it.

  • SoonToBeRD

    I agree with @Shelley – I’m quite concerned that someone would say that fats and meat are “truly healthy and satiating.” And as equally concerned that others are down-playing the importance of fruits and vegetables in the diet of growing and developing children.

    Yes, protein is the most satiating of the 3 macronutrients, but @Shelley is right again when she says we consume much more of it than we need anyway. Americans also typically overestimate how many calories they need in a day, especially if they are active. And does the childhood obesity epidemic happening in our country right now ring a bell to anyone??

    Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are incredibly important components in the diet, and I am all for increasing them in school lunches as opposed to chicken nuggets and french fries 3x/week. Yes, the carbohydrates are turned to glucose in the body, but our brains and red blood cells use glucose exclusively as an energy supply, and our brain requires ~19% of our energy needs anyway – so I’d say glucose is pretty darn important. When this glucose is coming from FRUITS, VEGETABLES and WHOLE GRAINS, you get the added benefit of consuming essential vitamins, minerals and fiber at the same time. Do you get those (and in equal amounts) when eating potato chips, french fries and candy? No, you don’t.

    America’s children desperately need better nutrition, and the USDA based their standards off of research from the Institute of Medicine – a highly regarded group of medical and health professionals. It’s a shame that politicians would jepordize the health of our future for their own political gain.

  • Well, to be totally fair to Alexandra, her comment has a nugget or two of truth. But she’s also flattening what is a complex topic into “they’re all SUGAR”, leaving the impression of bean shaped cookies dancing in our minds.

    Legumes such as soy beans do supply complex carbohydrates, but they also supply protein and fat. Mixed with whole grains and you have all the protein a body needs, with very little fat.

    Vegetables and fruit are typically carbohydrates, true, but they also provide essential nutrition you can’t get by diving head first into a t-bone. And the amount (and type) of carbohydrates present differs widely based on the type of vegetable.

    And to so quickly dismiss complex carbohydrates in the same paragraph as dismissing simple carbohydrates–because they’re all SUGAR, well, that’s just grossly misleading.

    The whole ‘eat lots of saturated fat’ thing just leaves me cold. I don’t see the harm in a pat of butter, and I do love cheese ( I eat too much of it), or a little chicken, beef, or fish, but from what I’ve seen of school lunch menus in the past, that’s all the kids ate!

    Meals were nothing more than various shades of yellow or orange, and I include the meat in this.

    Dr. Nestle is more knowledgeable about all of this than me–as is SoonToBeRD–but most of us recognize how silly most of the paleo diet claims are. The same goes for the claims by the Weston Price people, too.

    Our kids have a health problem, and we’re not going to cure it with cult diets and nutritional fiction.

    Or politics.

  • Elementary Teacher

    The problem continues to be food policy in general. Kids are not overweight because of school lunches. (Granted, they do teach children that restaurant style food is okay to eat everyday.) The problems is all of the other cheap unhealthy calories they eat at home. Kindergarteners are now coming to school weighing 60 and 70 pounds. It is no longer unusual to have children over 100 pounds in first or second grade. This isn’t from school lunch. The only way to cure childhood obesity is to made unhealthy food more expensive by ending corn, soy, dairy, and meat subsidies.

  • Herbert Hoover

    Americans are insane. So are people who think that whole grains are bad for you. So glad I don’t live in that country.

  • RR

    Thank you, Dr. Nestle, for bringing some sense to the table! As a nutrition policy Fed dealing with some of this nonsense, I am greatly appreciative and hope that your column is widely read/shared.

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  • Professor Nestle writes, “Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

    Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.”

    This devoted Democrat and political journalist disagrees with your statements that this is all politics, no substance. As I wrote at my my blog today:

    “Intentions were terrific behind this initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama: a healthy, balanced lunch for every child, regardless of family income. The goals are to serve less salt and fat, and more fresh produce and whole grains.

    “But as so often happens when government tries to regulate private behavior, the Obama administration went too far. Way too far. And kids across the nation are going hungry at school as a result. The bill overreaches by setting very restrictive lunch rules.

    “The Obama administration’s new school-lunch guidelines are a well-intentioned step forward, but too restrictive, too inflexible. Too extreme. And too much, too soon, to successfully wean American kids off fast food habits, and to inspire love of healthier fare. Force is not the way to lead kids, or anyone, away from fake foods.

    “Perhaps worst of all, kids from low-income families can least afford to augment the often unsatisfying lunches that may be their heartiest meal of the day. Sometimes their only meal. Further, few (if any) variations are allowed in school lunches…

    “Calorie ceilings should be raised or entirely ended for school lunches now served under the aegis of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Kids of all ages should be offered a reasonable range of healthier food choices rather than be forced to down a narrowly-proscribed diet set by the federal government.

    “Children should not be going hungry because of school lunches. And the federal government has no business overriding parents and local school districts by telling kids what to eat.”

    This is a large part of my post. The rest relates mainly to student, teacher and school district complaints from various part of the country and clever YouTube video from a Kansas high school.

    The full post can be read here:

  • Deborah, there really isn’t that much of an uproar over the school lunches. What generated notoriety was Steve King getting involved–and his reasons are purely political.

    Following is a PDF of a before and after school lunch menu for elementary school. Do you really think the new lunch plan is worse? Seriously?

  • This is an example of school lunches for high school for one school system that meets the new requirements

    They also, like many schools, provide breakfast for low income students. Example menu

    I’m sorry, but what child is falling down, dying of starvation with these choices?

    We have to start learning that “All you can eat” was never a good idea.

  • Another story featured kids supposedly perishing from lack of food.

    That school’s menu

  • The US is so advanced that even school lunches is subject to standards. My country can’t even have their school kids have enough to it.

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