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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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