Proposed Nutrition Standards Would Increase Whole Foods and Limit Calories in School Food: Share You

April 06, 2011

By Alex Schaible

The January release of the USDA’s proposal for school nutrition standards marked a historic step for school food. The proposed standards are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which passed last December and will raise the nutrition standards for school meals for the first time in more than 15 years.  Advocates across the country are sharing their input on the new standards that will help reshape school meals.

Overall, the new standards for school meals would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals and would require schools to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories and trans fats served to students.

In addition, there are two big changes that we are particularly excited about.

Moving to food-based menu planning

The proposed rules place strong emphasis on planning meals around foods, rather than a set of nutrients. Schools that use “Food-based Menu Planning” [pdf] must offer five food items in every school lunch: a meat or meat alternate, vegetables and/or fruits, grains/breads, and milk. We especially like this method of menu planning because it encourages kids to get their nutrients from different food groups and promotes eating habits that they can continue in their homes. 

According to the USDA, around 70 percent of school districts currently use food-based menu planning and the remaining 30 percent use a method of planning called “Nutrient Standard Menu Planning.”  This method focuses on getting students to consume a required set of nutrients during the week and focuses less on which foods deliver those nutrients.  As a result, many school districts serve items such as donuts and cookies that are fortified with the required nutrients. Under the proposed rules, schools will be required to use food-based menu planning, which in our opinion is important because it emphasizes whole foods rather than highly fortified foods.

Setting calorie limits

The USDA is recommending a lowered minimum calorie level and, for the first time, a maximum calorie limit for school meals.  Current standards set a minimum (but not maximum) number of calories for school meals, which leads many schools to add sugar-filled (but low-fat) items to their menus to meet the calorie minimum. 

The proposed regulations would set the following calorie ranges: 550 to 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8; and 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.

As the USDA moves forward with developing these guidelines, it will be important that they consider how these new standards will be implemented by schools across the country.  Providing schools with any resources possible, both technical and financial, will help schools comply with the new regulations and facilitate the transition to the new standards.  Complying with these regulations will not be cheap; but if the standards are implemented well, they will serve students in the long run and support healthier school environments across the country.

Please share your thoughts on the nutrition standards with the USDA. You can submit your comments through the USDA’s website by here. The deadline for submitting comments is April 13!