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USDA School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children

by Suzanne Havala, M.S., R.D.



For the first time in almost fifty years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed new regulations to update and improve school meals. The changes aim to bring school meals in line with the 1990 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a move that Agriculture Secretary Ellen Haas calls long overdue. A USDA survey of school meals earlier this year found the average fat content of school lunches around the nation is currently 38 percent, with only one percent of schools offering lunches that provide an average of 30 percent of calories from fat and only one school meeting the goal of 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.

Proposed Changes

Hold the Fat Content of Meals to 30 Percent

The proposed changes will require schools to hold the fat content of menus (averaged over a week) to not more than 30 percent of calories, with not more than 10 percent of fat as saturated fat. Menus will also have to meet current standards for vitamins, minerals and calories. They will be encouraged to lower their cholesterol, sodium, and sugar contents and to increase their dietary fiber contents, however quantitative guidelines will not be set for these substances.

The NuMenu System

Current meal patterns for school meals are rigid and require specified numbers of servings of specific food groups. This system will be replaced by NuMenus and Assisted NuMenus, where meals will be evaluated on their total nutrient composition, rather than by components. Menus will be analyzed for nutritional content using a national nutrient database that has been created by USDA. This database includes nutrition information from USDA's Handbook #8 as well as nutritional data from brand name foods which have been supplied by the manufacturers.

A test of the NuMenu system will begin in school year 1994-2011, during which time 34 schools around the country will begin use of the system and undergo monitoring by USDA. The following year, all schools which wish to participate will be given the opportunity.

Those which do not possess the technical capacity to use the NuMenus (database) software will be able to use the Assisted NuMenus system, which includes menus and materials which have been pre-approved. The goal is for all schools to convert to the NuMenus system by school year 1998-2011.

Greater Flexibility Equals Greater Variety with NuMenus

The NuMenus system will allow for much greater flexibility in menu planning. Providing that lunches average 1/3 of the RDA for nutrients with established standards (1/4 of the RDA for breakfast) and that the new goals for fat and saturated fat are met, then menus can include any types of dishes, including many that previously would have been difficult to use. For instance, more ethnic and regional dishes will be able to be worked into menus. Such healthful options as bean burritos, vegetable stir-frys, and meatless veggie burgers will be able to be served, whereas the old component system, with its heavy emphasis on meat and dairy products, would have made it difficult to include such items.

Whole Milk

While there will be no requirement for meat per se in the NuMenu system, there will still be a requirement that fluid milk be served at meals. This does not make sense from a technical stand-point, but the mandate that milk be served at school meals is legislated, and it is not within the authority of USDA to alter this. The law requires that whole milk be offered to children. Many health organizations are calling for the repeal of the existing whole milk mandate; it would take legislative action to abolish the requirement for fluid milk altogether.

So, at present, fluid cow's milk must be a component of a child's school meal in order for that meal to qualify for reimbursement to the school under the federal guidelines. Not only must milk be included, but whole milk must be available.

Other beverages, such as soy milk or fruit juice, can still be served in addition to the cow's milk, but not in place of it.

Menus Include at Least Three Menu Items

In addition to the requirement that the school meal include milk, lunches must also include at least three menu items, and one of those must be an entree.


The commodities that schools have traditionally received have been a two-edged sword. Government commodities help schools keep food costs down, encouraging school food service directors to work these freebies into menus. Government commodities make up about 20 percent of the food used by schools. But many of these commodities are high in fat and cholesterol. Cheese, butter, fatty beef and whole milk are examples.

USDA plans to review specifications for commodities that are given to schools and to work with the food industry to develop new, more healthful products to provide schools with more flexibility. Food labels will be added to commodities to help schools make informed decisions about how to use these foods in order to meet the Dietary Guidelines. Plans also include establishing links with local farmers to make greater use of locally-grown commodities. Earlier this year, USDA also announced its Fresh Start Initiative, a new program which doubles the amounts of fruit and vegetable commodities sent to schools.

Unfortified Soy Protein

Under the old component system, soy protein could be used in foods, but it couldn't replace more than 30 percent of the meat in products. For instance, a burger patty could not contain more than 30 percent soy protein; the remaining 70 percent of the patty had to be meat. The soy was also fortified with iron, a requirement that came about as a result of USDA research which indicated that soy inhibits the body's ability to absorb iron.

The NuMenu system, which bases evaluation of meals on total nutrient composition instead of food groups, posed a special problem with regards to USDA's vegetable protein products rules. Since meat is not required now in school meals, nutritionists at USDA cited concerns that products made up entirely of fortified soy protein (such as some veggie burgers) might provide too much iron or other nutrients.

The decision was made to allow unfortified soy protein to be used in unlimited amounts, but fortified soy protein could still not make up more than 30 percent of a product. As far as the issue of mineral absorption is concerned, USDA has decided to "monitor" the use of all-soy products in school meals, but to allow these unfortified products to be served for now.

But Will They Eat It?

USDA plans a national education and media campaign which will be launched in 1995 to help teach children how to make better food choices. New, culturally and regionally diverse menus have been created that are lower in fat and sodium, and culinary experts have been recruited to work with and teach food service professionals. According to USDA, "Students, parents, teachers, and the food and agricultural community will be involved through a national nutrition education campaign, using media that children and parents understand and speaking in the language they speak..." USDA will further "invest in people" by assisting schools and school food service directors with training and technical assistance to improve management and implement nutrition changes in school meals.

About The NuMenu Database

The NuMenu database is available at no charge via electronic bulletin board and Internet. For more information, call USDA's Child Nutrition Program at 301-436-3536.

Food companies that wish to submit nutritional information for their products for entry into the NuMenu database can do so by filing the appropriate data submission forms. Call the number above for a computer diskette containing the required forms.

About This Article

This article appeared in the November/December 1994 issue of Vegetarian Journal and in the Summer 1994 issue of Vegetarian Journal's Foodservice Update. Both are published by:
The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (410) 366-8343

What is the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG)?

Our health professionals, activists, and educators work with businesses and individuals to bring about healthy changes in your school, workplace, and community. Registered dietitians and physicians aid in the development of nutrition-related publications and answer member and media questions about vegetarian diets. The Vegetarian Resource Group is a non-profit organization. Financial support comes primarily from memberships, contributions, and book sales.

For more information about the VRG, or for subscription information for the Vegetarian Journal and/or VJ's Foodservice Update, please write or call us at the address/phone number above. If preferred, you may contact us through electronic mail through Bobbi Pasternak at

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