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Wait, What Did the USDA Change about School Meals?


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced changes to school meals last week that allow schools to serve more whole grains and proteins. But what exactly do the changes mean? For answers, we turned to Megan Lott, MPH, RD, a senior associate at the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project. The project is a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

What are the specific changes that USDA issued regarding school meals?

USDA recently released a memo to state child nutrition directors, which provided additional guidance to school food service directors on meeting requirements for whole grains and proteins in school meals. The new direction eliminates daily and weekly maximums for both whole grains and protein in school lunch for the remainder of the 2012- 2013 school year. School Food Service Directors will still be required to meet the daily and weekly minimums for these food groups, and the calories caps will remain in place. That means that lunches in elementary schools range between 550 and 650 calories, middle school lunches between 600 and 700, and those in high schools have roughly 750 to 850.

Why did the USDA decide to make these changes?

This fall, in school cafeterias across the country, students were seeing big changes on their lunch trays, for the first time in more than a decade.  In response, USDA was receiving a great deal of feedback from schools that the daily and weekly maximums for protein and whole grains were proving to be a challenge in serving enough calories in student lunches. Nutrition policy experts and advocates also weighed in and generally agree that with a calorie limit, maximums for proteins and whole grains aren’t really needed during this transition year.

The important thing is USDA made these changes to make the updated nutrition standards work better for millions of American students.

There’s been a lot of debate, especially on social media, over whether these changes are good or bad when it comes to the effort to reduce childhood obesity. What do you think?

Nutrition policy experts largely agree that whole grain and protein maximums aren’t really necessary when a calorie cap is still in place. The nutrition standards as a whole – serving more and greater varieties of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and reducing the total amount of saturated fat, calories and sodium – still go a long way in addressing childhood obesity.

How have schools reacted to the changes thus far?

It’s too soon to know exactly how this has been received by schools; however, we believe the new guidance will address any concerns. We’ve seen the media coverage shifting towards the positive, and when we meet with members of Congress, they seem to be pleased with USDA’s responsiveness on the issue.

Do you think this will calm some of the criticism that folks have had about the new school meal guidelines?

Hopefully this change will go a long way to address many of these concerns. What’s important is that USDA has expressed a commitment to continue gathering feedback from the field and address concerns where possible.

What’s next for school meals, and the overall effort to make school food healthier?

We are urging USDA to also issue proposed nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages sold in schools via school stores, a la carte lines and vending machines. The last time these standards were updated was 30 years ago and since then we’ve seen childhood obesity rates nearly triple.  This will be a huge step in ensuring that all foods sold in U.S. schools are healthy.