Healthy School Lunch Law Gets Mixed Reviews

Bay Area school nutrition service directors had mixed reactions after Pres. Barack Obama this week signed into law new legislation guiding the $4.5 billion federal school lunch program.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 raises the bar on nutrition standards for school lunches, which have long been subsidized by the federal government. Specific guidelines will be coming in months from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which overseas the school lunch program. But the new standards will require more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables—especially dark green and orange vegetables--on school menus.

The law also will give schools an extra six cents for each meal served, which is the first increase in the school lunch reimbursement beyond inflation in about 30 years. Schools now are reimbursed $2.72 for each free lunch they serve to an income-eligible student and 26 cents for full-priced meals. School lunches provide 30 percent or more of school-aged kids’ daily caloric intake. In recent years, school lunches have been targeted by health experts concerned about the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes.

The new nutrition standards expected from the USDA will require a food-based approach to school menu planning, with specific amounts of food groups that must be served daily, rather than a nutrient-based approach, which focuses on serving kids the recommended allowances of calories, fats and protein. The difference is significant, says Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of school nutrition services at the state Department of Education.

“Do you base your meals around food groups, making sure there is ‘x’ number of fruits and vegetables on the plate. Or do you plan meals using a nutritional analysis each day?” said Bramson-Paul. “With a nutrient-based approach, you look at whether the overall meal contains the required nutrients. You do not need to have a specific grain on your plate.”

Most California school district food programs use the nutrient-based approach, Bramson-Paul said, while districts in the rest of the country favor the food-based approach. One goal of the new law is to create a uniform approach to school nutrition, making the food-based approach the standard. But that raises challenges for schools here, Bramson-Paul said.

“I’d like to see some districts grandfathered in,” she said. “They have put lot of money into nutrient-based standards. If you’re really dedicated to nutrient-based menu planning, you’ve invested in software, computers and training staff.”

The West Contra County Schools food service previously used a food-based approach to menu planning, but now it uses nutrient-based menu planning, which director Barbara Jellison considers better for kids. “With food-based, we would serve a piece of meat, so much cheese,” she said. “But you’re not giving kids variety. With nutrient-standard menu planning, you’re able to offer lighter offerings and, over the week, more variety. We have the SunChips that go along with a sandwich. But with food-based, you’re not able to do that if you already have your two slices of bread with the sandwich.”

The Oakland schools nutrition service is a hybrid, says director Jennifer LeBarre, serving breakfasts and snacks from a food-based menu and lunches created with a nutrient-based approach, so the transition won’t be too difficult she said.

“I tend to agree that we eat foods and not nutrients, and we often rely too much on reading nutrition labels and not looking at what products are made of,” she said. “The problem with the new standards is they are requiring more food but without the funding. We have to serve more whole grains and different fruits and vegetables. We’ll get $230,000 extra with that 6 cent raise, but we need $1.3 million for lunches.”

LeBarre’s beef about the new law’s paltry increase was echoed by Zetta Reicker, assistant director of San Francisco’s Student Nutrition Services.

“While any increase is appreciated, here, we know it’s not enough,” she said. “Our menu already meets the gold standard for the USDA Healthy Schools challenge. We offer whole grains, more dark green and orange vegetables, and it costs a lot more.”

Reicker noted that the federal government reimburses school lunch programs the same amount regardless of the costs of buying, preparing, and serving that meal. “We get the same reimbursement as a town in Ohio, but we have higher food costs, labor costs and transportation costs. And the changes to the menu are expensive. Six cents is not enough.”

Matthew Belasco, director of Pittsburg school district’s nutrition service, said he was “optimistic” about the new school lunch standards and the extra funding. “It’s six cents more than we had before, and the regulations were coming if we got it or not,” he said. “With the emphasis on childhood obesity and healthy meals, I’m encouraged to get the six cents.”

His department uses the nutrient standard for menu planning, so the change to food-based “will mean some retraining,” Belasco said. “The new nutrition standards fit very well with what we’re doing on our food court—a lot more scratch cooking. I know it’s better for students. I’m not going to change their eating habits. I’m not going to be there at the 7-Eleven when they leave school. But I can enhance their eating habits.”