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New Nutrition Standards to Allow Healthier Options at Schools

School LunchOn January 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published revised nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. This final rule follows a proposal issued on Jan. 13, 2011. Last year I provided my thoughts on this proposal through the ePerspective Revised School Nutrition Standards Make the Grade.

This is obviously an important and even personal topic as evidenced by the 133,268 public comments submitted to USDA regarding the proposed rule. The First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative that focuses on eliminating childhood obesity within a generation has brought heightened awareness to these standards, which cover nearly 32 million kids participating in school meal programs every school day. This is the first time in more than 15 years the standards have been revised to better reflect evidence-based science, including the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The final rule explicitly details the requirements that must be met, including limits on calories (minimum/maximum levels dependent upon grade level), trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium while meeting minimum requirements for offerings of whole grain-rich foods, fluid milk (1% fat, fat-free, fat-free flavored milk), fruits (restriction on amount of 100% juice), vegetables, and meat/meat alternatives. All of these requirements lay out specific details around the offerings. For example, over the course of the week, schools must offer all vegetable subgroups (dark green, red-orange, beans, legumes, starchy) at minimum required quantities, dependent upon the age group.

In general, there were no real surprises based on the initial proposal; however, concerns were expressed by stakeholders that encouraged Congress to pass the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act in December 2011 that restricted USDA to impose a few limits on the final rules including:

  1. Crediting tomato paste and puree as a calculated volume based on whole food equivalency. However, crediting has changed for snack-type fruit or vegetable products.
  2. No restriction on starchy vegetables, such as french fries, although other vegetable subgroups must be met.
  3. Implementing a sodium reduction beyond Target 1 (5–10% reduction in 2 years) until an updated scientific review has been conducted related to sodium reduction and human health.
  4. Establishing any whole grain requirements without defining “whole grain.”

The federal government will provide schools an additional 6 cents a meal; however, the new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years. The final nutrition standards have various implementation dates, but begin as soon as the school year of 2012–2013.

I applaud the government for ensuring our children have access to healthier options at schools. Keep in mind this is one part of the energy balance equation. Physical activity needs to be incorporated back into schools through various means. However, with these new meal standards, I believe we are not only teaching our kids good eating habits but positively impacting the entire family. As food scientists, the challenge will be to ensure these breakfast and lunch items not only meet the nutrition standards but are visually appealing and taste good to children and adolescents. Food scientists have a real opportunity to make a difference on the health of our youth.

Joy Dubost
Director of Nutrition and Healthy Living
National Restaurant Association

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