A Deeper Look At New USDA Guidelines for Schools

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In last Tuesday’s blog, Central looked into schools serving meals three times a day—and it really shows just how times have changed.  Thanks to a rough economy, many children eat over half to all of their meals at school during the week.

In general, “the school meal” has been a hot topic, perhaps really kicking off in 2010 when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed and First Lady Michelle Obama started the Let’s Move! campaign.

It’s been a few years since those initiatives have been put in place and with anything, there are always changes and revisions.

On January 26, the USDA released new guidelines to improve nutritional quality.

To summarize, schools will have to offer more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, provide fat-free or low-fat milk, limit calories based on age and reduce saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.  Also, every three years school lunches will be reviewed to ensure they are consistent with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  (Further detail of changes reviewed later on in this blog).

Schools will have to start to implement these changes on July 1, 2012—which kicks off a three year phase for all of the changes included in the document, “Nutritional Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.”

At a whopping 80 pages, this document is no quick read and is a lot of information to sift through. Because there are so many revisions, the USDA isn’t leaving schools in the dark.

On March 1, the USDA released a very informative (and shorter) document, “Questions & Answers to the Final Rule, “Nutrition Standards in the School Lunch and Breakfast Programs,” which focuses on specific changes piece by piece.

It’s not surprising the very first question is, “Why is USDA setting new meal patterns and dietary specifications for school meals?”

Well, the signing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a huge step in school nutrition because it was the first change in the last 15 years.  So, going back to the concept that “times have changed,” they really have.

In this chart by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the rise in childhood obesity is clear.  From 1963 to 1970, four percent of six to 11-year-olds were overweight, and 5 percent of 12 to 19- year-olds.  There were subtle changes from 1971 through 1980, and then there was a big jump from 1988 to 1994 when the rate jumped to 11 percent for children between the ages of six and 19.

Today? Almost every one out of three children is overweight.

With many children getting many if not all of their nutritious meals at school, the USDA knew it was time for some changes to be made.

To go into further detail, the USDA lists the following as the main differences to the old rules and the new ones:

  • Food planning based on age and grade group
  • Fruits and vegetables now two separate food components
  • “Offer vs. Serve” approach, to have students choose at least a half a cup of fruits or vegetables
  • Weekly grains ranges along with a daily minimum requirement—and by the third year, all grains served must be whole grain-rich
  • Only serve unflavored or flavored fat-free milk or unflavored low-fat milk
  • Minimum and maximum calorie levels
  • Two intermediate sodium target reductions, then a final one
  • Limit trans fat and saturated fat
  • Three year administrative review cycle

Currently, the new guidelines do not affect meals for children with disabilities or children in pre-kindergarten.

The three year administrative review cycle will start during the 2013-2014 school year.

The new changes and guidelines are extensive. But documents like the “Questions & Answers on the Final Rule” help to simplify. 

Here is a list of some helpful resources from the USDA, be sure to find all of them here:

Also, don’t forget to check out our blog from Tuesday March 19 about schools serving three meals per day.

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