by Marion Nestle
Dec 11 2012

USDA to allow flexibility in school meal standards: food politics in action

When it comes to feeding kids, it is not possible to overestimate the self-interest of food producers—and their friends in Congress.

Forget about childhood obesity and other child health problems.  If you want to understand why school nutrition standards are so controversial, you must pay close attention to their effects on the financial health of the companies selling food to school meal programs.

Corporate health trumps kids’ health every time.

That is the lesson to be drawn from USDA’s December 7 announcement that it will allow schools some flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for meat and grains.

As long as the schools meet minimum requirements for meat and grain servings, they no longer have to restrict the maximum size of servings.

This may be a trivial change; schools will still have to serve mostly whole grains and adhere to calorie standards.

But was this decision political?  Of course it was.

Despite two Institute of Medicine reports recommending improvements in the quality of school meals, Congress has chosen to micromanage USDA’s regulations.  Recall: tomato sauce on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

In October, three members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the new school nutrition standards resulted in higher costs and more food waste.  In November, Senator John Hoeven (Rep-ND) and 10 other senators, all from meat- and grain-producing states, that they were hearing complaints from constituents about kids going hungry in school.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reassured Senator Hoeven that USDA was listening to the complaints and was taking steps to address them: “you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

On December 8, Senator Hoeven issued a news release:

The rule had appeared to pose problems…especially for students in low income families, students in athletics programs or students in school districts with limited operating budgets. Moreover…it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.

“I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them,” Hoeven said. “While we welcome this news from USDA, we believe the new flexibility should be permanent, rather than for just the 2012-2013 school year, and we will continue to press that case.”

Protein?  Since when is protein an issue in American diets?  (Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required).

What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.

What’s also at stake is what comes next.

USDA has yet to issue regulations for nutrition standards for vending machines and competitive snacks and sodas sold in schools outside the lunch programs.

You can bet that Congress—which seems to have nothing better to do—will be taking a close interest in those rules as well.

If what’s happening with school meals proves nothing else it is that Congress cares a lot more about the health of the industries that support election campaigns than it does about the health of children.



  • Mike Davis

    First sentence: I assume you meant “overestimate.”

  • Perhaps it’s the fact that kids don’t like having their meal portions cut. Which is not surprising, given that they’re growing. (And not just sideways.)

    Moreover, the research shows that cutting meal sizes is a pretty ineffective way to reduce obesity, especially in unwilling victims, who will just make up the calorie deficit at the next meal.

    This is a badly considered policy, poorly enacted.

    Which is not to say that schools shouldn’t be serving better-quality food. But it’s unlikely that they’re going to do so so long as they’re following the USDA dietary recommendations.

    After all, the other obesity epidemic is in military personnel. They also follow the USDA dietary recommendations, and they’re also getting fat. They, however, don’t have the choice of having their parents feed them, for the most part.

    So why would one expect the policy that’s failing in the military, which is comprised of willing volunteers, to succeed in the schools, which is full of unwilling participants?

    This boils down to a big experiment, in which the participants are being denied “informed consent”. It’s a huge ethics, scandal, or should be.

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  • Hi Marion:

    I don’t dispute the role of Big Ag lobbying in shaping school food meal patterns and no one was more upset than I re: the pizza = vegetable debacle. But one of the benefits of writing The Lunch Tray is that I’ve become a sounding board of sorts for well-meaning school food professionals around the country, and I also speak regularly with school food providers in my own district, Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest. And every one I’ve spoken to in the field has expressed serious concerns about the protein/grain caps. Interestingly, only a few of them have mentioned the issue kids going hungry due to smaller portions (a matter which I believe was greatly exaggerated by some for political gain:, and instead I’ve been told that the caps impede flexibility in menu planning, encourage the use by districts of processed foods over scratch-cooked (something Big Ag and Big Food actually ought to love) and encourage the inclusion of “empty calories” on the menu. As but one example, my district had to drop its whole-meat BBQ chicken drumstick, introduced as a welcome and healthier alternative to nuggets and patties, because suddenly the portion size was too large. (More on the practical roblems created by the caps here: So I’m just saying that while politics may have played a role in this rule change, perhaps the end result is not a bad one when it comes to the health of kids.

  • Michael Bulger

    It seems like the school lunch providers are lacking creativity, and also that the food companies are not meeting the demand for product lines that fit the new standards. Are we really to believe that the only options for kids have to be high-calorie BBQ chicken drumsticks or sodium-filled chicken nuggets?

    I see this as the school food industry flunking the test. The USDA threw out the rules and gave the industry an A+ just to get them to graduation.

    The USDA should be working with the districts and food suppliers to boost their performance. They’re not. The failing school districts should be held to the example of schools that did meet menu planning goals. Instead, USDA is lowering the bar.

  • Ryan G

    This is merely a symptom of a bigger food problem in the US. Stopping the massive subsidies to corn producers would be a step in the right direction. The unnaturally low price of corn makes unhealthy calories (soda, candy, chips, fried food) much more affordable relative to the healthy calories from fruits and vegetables.

  • Sad, indeed, Marion. When our government for the people stops caring about the people, we are in a bad situation. Between pesticides, school lunch regulations, GMOs, fracking, etc. it feels like the government is consistently siding with business over people and our health. I’m not sure what the wake up call is but health statistics along should be alarming and cause for change.

  • TR

    I agree with what Ryan said above. If agribusiness commodity crops weren’t subsidized and the consumer had to pay the full cost of those products, let’s just see how that affects american diets.

    We need to end agribusiness subsidies particularly when all it produces is corn syrup. Corn syrup is not essential to our food supply. If corn syrup producers go out of business because they can’t afford to stay in business because they are no longer getting their government welfare, I shall cry no tear. If farmers lose their farms because all they were doing was selling corn to the corn syrup industry and relying on government welfare (oops, I mean subsidies), I shall cry no tear. I’ll probably laugh.

    In response to Gina, I’d say the wake up call will be when politicians are losing their voters and tax payers when they all start dieing. I say let the deaths commence! I’ll be over here eating other things.
    Those meat and gmo producing states don’t make much money off of me. I don’t care how much they hate me because I don’t buy their products.

  • Joe

    Here is the solution: Get the Federal Government out of the plates of our nations school children. The government only makes things worse. The school lunch program began in the 1940’s and still can’t get it right. Time to get them out!

    Another thing that must be said is that school nutrition programs are self supporting business entities. At the end of the day they must at least break even and given all of their expenses that taks can be daunting. So every child who decides not to eat in the lunchroom is another meal reimbuirsement that the school nutrition program is not getting. When government mandated nutrition guidelines cause a mass exodus of customers there is a problem with the bottom line which is likely behind this USDA change.


    I”m sorry but I’m glad the portion restriction has been lifted. The amount of food given to a child is not the same for everyone. There are times my 4 year old eats way more than my 10 yr old and vice versa. It totally depends on whether or not there is a growth spurt. Also, my 10 plays competitive basketball and can play up to 3 or even 4 games in a day. That’s an average of 3 miles of running per game!! That’s a TON of calories being burnt.
    As a parent what the actual school lunch is serving isn’t my complaint as overall they are trying to provide our children with balanced meals. It is the “opional” things available to my kids. Why is there ice cream bars in some schools? WHY on EARTH are there candy machines, candy aisles, MONSTER machines or soda machines allowed in schools!! Don’t get me started on the consession stands. UGH!!!
    If we only offer good nutritional foods, what does it matter if they have seconds?

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