School lunch programs get reprieve from new federal nutrition rules

A Harwood Union Middle School student looks a little suspiciously at a stromboli served by the school’s food service. Photo by Alicia Freese

Vermont school programs that have been struggling to comply with new federal school lunch guidelines were granted a reprieve earlier this month — they no longer have to limit the amount of protein and grains they serve, at least for now. School lunches still must fall within a certain calorie range, but food services won’t have to monitor the ounces of proteins and grains they dish out to children.

The change is provisional — it only applies to the present school year — but for the time being it removes one of the more irksome new requirements for food service directors.

The new requirements aim to provide healthier meals for schoolchildren by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, decreasing fats and sodium, and limiting total calories and grain and protein servings. Schools have to comply to receive federal funding, the backbone of most lunch programs in Vermont.

But some lunch providers argue that the rules are too restrictive and make it more difficult to use Vermont vendors for school lunch ingredients.

Laurie Colgan, director of Child Nutrition Programs at the Department of Education, said she supports the concept of grain and protein caps — “The IOM [Institute of Medicine] did do a lot of research to help establish these guidelines … granted every child is different and has different limits, but I think for the most part they are on target.” But postponing the implementation will “ease the transition” for struggling schools, Colgan said.

Colgan also pointed out that the USDA’s recent decision will also allow time for manufacturers and producers to develop products that meet the portion size and other requirements.

The guidelines, which hadn’t been revised in 15 years, are being implemented in phases — the first wave of reforms came at the beginning of this school year; next year the rules will become more rigid.

A middle school student serves himself fruit in the cafeteria at Harwood Union High and Middle School. Photo by Alicia Freese

One of the most noteworthy changes is that meals must fall within a calorie range; previously there was only a minimum. Calories for lunch are capped at 650 for grades K-5, 700 for grades 6-8, and 850 for high school students. The amount of proteins and grains a student can consume is also capped at weekly maximum — nine ounces for grades K-5, 10 ounces for grades 6-8, and 12 ounces for high school students.

In the new guidelines, fruits and vegetables are no longer interchangeable, and the daily requirements for each have been increased. A spectrum of vegetables — dark green, red/orange, legumes and starchy — must be served during the course of a week. Half of all grains must be whole grain-rich; two years down the road, all grains will need to be whole grain-rich. Other changes include: Milk must have a fat content of 1 percent or lower, sodium content is being scaled back and trans fats have been banished.

Washington West Supervisory Union Superintendent Brigid Sheffert said the new protein and grain gaps had initially forced her school cafeterias to steer away from local farms and food businesses. Cabot Cheese had been the main purveyor of dairy products to Harwood Union Middle and High School, but in order to comply with mandated protein limits, the school had to cut back 50 percent on the amount of Cabot product it purchased.

Abbie Nelson, executive director of Vermont FEED, said she thinks the increased fruit and vegetable requirements will create greater opportunities for partnerships with farms, not fewer.

The cost increase for school lunches as a result of the changes has been about 35 cents or 40 cents per meal in Vermont, according to Colgan.

Doug Davis, president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont, called it “a valid concern” that the limits might inhibit partnerships between schools and Vermont vendors, but he said they also can lead to increased engagement. He pointed to one of his own experiences with Burlington schools: The protein limit pushed school food services to work with Vermont Bean Crafters to create black bean crumble and falafel dishes, which circumvent the protein limit because beans can be classified as a vegetable.

Davis was well-acquainted with the guidelines before they came out, having served on a panel charged with providing feedback to the USDA in February 2011, when the law was in draft form. Even so, Davis said he was perplexed to see that the final version contained a proviso setting an upper limit for grain and protein consumption. “In the proposed rule and in the IOM guidelines [which the law was based on], there is really no reference of these caps.”

“I still can’t be convinced that low-fat yogurt and homemade granola is what’s causing the obesity crisis in our country right now,” Davis said.

The caps have had unanticipated effects in Burlington. Sandwiches, for instance, can’t be an option every day for grades K-5 because 10 slices of bread exceeds the limit of nine grain servings. Depriving a kindergartner of his or her daily sandwich may not sound like a serious hardship, but Davis contends that law shouldn’t limit the options available to feed finicky young eaters.

As the head of the advocacy arm for food service nutritionals, Davis has been conferring with USDA officials since the guidelines came out. He said he raised concerns about the protein and grain limits with the USDA deputy undersecretary, Dr. Janey Thornton, and was encouraged by her receptiveness.

school lunch salad bar

Students serve themselves from the salad bar in the Harwood Union High and Middle School cafeteria. The school recently returned to the salad bar protein and grain items it had removed to comply with federal school lunch regulations. Photo by Alicia Freese

Even before the USDA made its decision, Harwood had taken matters into its own hands by preemptively lifting the cap on grains and proteins. The school had initially removed all grain and protein dishes from its salad bar because it couldn’t enforce the limits with students serving themselves. This caused participation levels to plummet, according to Sheffert, and prompted her to look for ways to tinker with the system.

In October, Harwood reintroduced these items to its salad bar and instead of restricting what students can take, they’ve posted signs to show them what a “recommended portion” looks like. Harwood wasn’t a renegade — Sheffert says she got the go-ahead from the Department of Education after discussing the matter with Colgan.

Though the pullback of protein and grain restrictions grants greater leeway to food service directors, challenges remain for subsequent school years. Schools will still have to cope with the increased costs that come with the new program and some staff and students are concerned that the overall calorie limits, which will remain in place, are too low.

To help schools adjust, the Vermont Department of Education, in partnership with Vermont FEED and the School Nutrition Association of Vermont, has been working to train school food service directors. The Department of Education hosted a “Child Nutrition Summer Institute” for 300 school staff this summer and it has also held 25 “menu clinics” at schools. Hunger Free Vermont recruited dietician students at UVM to work with individual schools on implementing the guidelines.

But handling the budget strain has been the biggest challenge for many schools, Colgan said. Schools that comply with the new guidelines get an additional 6 cent reimbursement for each meal.

But by the USDA’s own estimate, the new guidelines will raise the costs by 26 cents per meal. Colgan said the cost increase for school lunches has been closer to 35 or 40 cents in Vermont. That’s because schools must purchase larger quantities of fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive. Increased labor costs, stemming from the need to carry out nutrient analysis and portion control, also contribute to the costs.

Alicia Freese

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  • Denise Ohm

    I am worried that Farm to School relationships will be far more limited due to the non-standard sizes of fruit grown locally. Not feeling confident on certifying a serving size of locally grown items. Salad bars in general may be threatened as it can be dicey to certify a legal serving when students can pick and choose.

    I wish schools would get extra points for offering locally grown foods in any size.

  • Jim Barrett

    Tell the federal government to tuff it!

  • Jason Lee

    Any parent is familiar with the age-old battle of wills in trying to get your child to eat certain foods (yes, typically its those “icky” green vegetables). Suddenly the federal government thinks it can legislate these vegetables into kids’ mouths? Basically whats happening is we’re spending more money to increase the amount of vegetables that kids are throwing into the trash. Combine that with caps on grains and proteins and you have the very real danger of kids going hungry at school. For a kid that doesn’t get that much to eat at home (consider the large numbers of free and reduced lunches in Vermont) this is a pretty bad scenario. I guess at least we’ll have some rich compost for our school gardens.

  • kevin lawrence

    Another step would be to consider the garbage sold in the ever-present vending machines in schools (see Oxbow, Bradford, VT.) Candy , soda, chips– it’s all available and the machines take the cash parents give to their kids for lunch. It’s a disgrace that exists due to adults who think they are getting money that they don’t have to include in the budget– all from sources that make our kids fatter and less healthy. Here’s a good story for VT DIGGER !

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