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School lunch is a complex topic, legally, but in its essence, it's very simple. School lunch is one of the only times when the government has very direct control over what Americans eat. And it's not a neutral decision. The food served in schools either helps or harms the health of America's children. Obviously, on a day to day level, the decisions are made by a very diverse group of school districts and individual schools, and people within those schools, but the federal government controls the food in two ways: by setting (or not setting) nutritional standards and by deciding how much to reimburse schools for school lunch.

All year I've been talking about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the big school lunch bill that will be passed in the next year. But the Institute of Medicine just gave us another opportunity to make changes - and no bills need to be passed in order to make them! The IOM made new recommendations for nutrition standards for school lunch, and now it's up to the USDA to adopt them... or not. Details below with action steps at the bottom.

As the School Lunch Talk blog puts it, "The current nutrition standards for school meals are in sore need of an overhaul." When it comes to school lunch nutritional standards there are two categories of food to discuss: the federally-reimbursable school lunch, and everything else. (The name for "everything else" is "competitive foods" because those foods compete for children's money and appetites with the school lunch.)

To date, I've been focusing on getting nutritional standards for competitive foods because there basically are none AND because the government would need to pass a law in order to get the USDA to regulate them at all. Currently - with a few exceptions - nothing is too junky to serve to kids in our schools as an a la carte item.

The Institute of Medicine recommendations focus on the actual school lunch, not the competitive foods. The nutrition of the school lunch IS regulated by the USDA... only the standards haven't been updated since 1995 and, as IOM points out, they kinda suck. The recommendations, on the other hand, are AWESOME.

My biggest fear is that any changes to school food policy adopted by the USDA will be based on what Michael Pollan calls "nutritionism:" i.e. regulations calling for lunches to contain specific nutrients instead of specific foods. And, as the people who market Rice Krispies understand, you can take a relatively junky food and fortify it until it appears very healthy (the back of the Rice Krispies box touts all of the nutrients in the cereal, even though it's basically nothing more than fortified refined grains and sugar.) The IOM is totally on the same page as me:

First, the committee recommended a food-based menu planning system that includes limits on calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium. Currently, schools have the option of using a nutrient-based system, which makes it easy to serve heavily processed, fortified food. They can meet requirements for vitamin C, for example, by serving fortified fruit snacks. Under a food-based system, nutrient targets are used in developing the standards for school meals, but they are not used in the actual menu planning. Instead, schools must simply serve items from a number of different food groups, including dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.

The USDA does not need any new laws passed in order to adopt the IOM's recommendations. However, they WILL need Congress to raise the reimbursement rate - the amount the federal government pays schools for each free or reduced cost lunch served - in order for schools to afford the changes they've called for. That's because following the IOM recommendations would cost schools an extra 25% for breakfast and 9% for lunch. Congress is going to debate the reimbursement rate as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a bill it will pass in the next six months to a year (click the link for basics on the bill).

You can take action on this by writing to the USDA and asking them to adopt the IOM's recommendations, and by writing to your members of Congress (both the House and the Senate) to ask them to increase the reimbursement rate for school lunch.

People in the USDA to write:
Tom Vilsack: AgSec at USDA dot gov
Kevin Concannon: Kevin.Concannon at usda dot gov
Janey Thornton: Janey.Thornton at usda dot gov

More details about the IOM's recommendations are below.

In addition to proposing a food-based meal pattern, the IOM recommended the following changes:

  1. School lunches should have a maximum calorie level (current regulations only set a minimum)
  1. The new regulations should place limits on sodium (currently there are none)
  1. Fruits and vegetables should no longer be interchangeable (currently, schools can serve either a fruit or a vegetable for lunch)
  1. Students should be required to select either a fruit or a vegetable for their lunch to be reimbursable (currently they must take three of the five offerings, and most take the milk, the meat and the bread)
  1. Over the course of a week, schools should serve 1/2 cup each of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes
  1. Half of the grains served each week should be whole grains
  1. Schools should offer only fat-free and low-fat milk
  1. Labeling on any packaged food product should indicate 0 grams of trans fat

Originally posted to Jill Richardson on Wed Oct 21, 2009 at 11:51 AM PDT.

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