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School cafeteria professionals have been leading the charge to help students adopt healthier lifestyles. They have been improving school menus, offering a wider variety of produce and whole grains, and reducing the sodium and calories in school meals.
Unfortunately, US Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards for school meals, intended to promote these healthier choices, are so extreme that many students are leaving the cafeteria altogether, missing out on the fruits, vegetables, milk and lean protein offered with every school meal.
According to USDA, since the new standards took effect, more than 1 million fewer students choose school lunch every day, threatening the financial viability of school meal programs. Declining participation reduces revenue for school districts already struggling with higher costs of preparing healthy meals. In fact, the School Nutrition Association’s 2013 Back to School Trends Survey found that in the 2012-2013 school year 47 percent of school meal programs reported revenue declined while more than nine of ten reported food costs were up.
School cafeterias will face even greater hurdles this fall when 100 percent of grains offered with school meals must be whole grain rich (up from 50 percent), as new sodium limits take effect, and as an additional layer of regulations are implemented under the Smart Snack in Schools rule for a la carte, vending and snack bar sales.
Students are enjoying more whole grain breads and buns in school, but requiring only whole grain rich choices is unrealistic for schools or for the average family. Many schools are struggling to find whole grain pastas, tortillas, biscuits and other specialty items that meet the standards and have an acceptable taste and texture for students’ finicky palates.
Schools support requirements that cafeterias offer students a wider variety of vegetables, but USDA mandates that every student take a fruit or vegetable with every meal, whether they want it or not. Forcing students to take food they don’t want has been a recipe for failure – feeding garbage cans, while depleting limited funds that could be directed to menu improvements or nutrition education, proven to increase student consumption of healthy foods.
And while cafeterias have been reducing sodium in school menus, the Smart Snack sodium limits are so severe that schools will be forced to take many healthy choices off a la carte menus. Even USDA is unable to meet these standards using their own ingredients. A sandwich prepared with USDA’s 8 inch whole wheat tortilla, a half ounce of reduced fat cheddar cheese and 2 ounces reduced sodium ham contains over 900 miligrams of sodium without any condiments. The reduced sodium ham alone nearly exceeds the Smart Snacks 480 miligrams per entrée sodium limit.
School cafeterias will continue to offer a wide variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and will meet limits on fat and calories and sensible restrictions on sodium. But to protect school meal programs and limit waste, Congress should support the Fiscal Year 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill and provide school cafeteria professionals reasonable flexibility to plan healthy meals that students will eat.
Patricia Montague is the Chief Executive Officer of the School Nutrition Association.