Stricter national school lunch guidelines challenge cash-strapped districts

Fremont High School freshman Sini Kuila eats partial whole-wheat pasta for lunch in his school's cafeteria. (Photo: Julia James)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this month will begin reviewing stricter guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. The new recommendations call for more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as reductions in salt and calorie content.

President Obama devoted $4.5 billion to the cause in December by signing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

But implementing the proposed changes would require a major headache if not a miracle, said Bill Shuster, who coordinates lunches for five secondary schools in the Fremont Union High School District in Sunnyvale, Calif.

“Sounds like a lot of sexy money, but it’s only six cents a meal,” he said. “That’s it. We’ll all get a whopping six cents to do what they’re asking.”

A lunch at one of his district’s high schools costs $3.50 per student, but $2.40 of that goes toward workers who are protected by the state’s classified school employees union. That means Shuster has to turn $1.10 into a meal that satisfies hungry teens, not to mention chapters of bureaucratic code.

In California, that bureaucratic code is long-form: Most schools in the state must base their nutrition programs on the National School Lunch Program and also on California laws S.B. 12 and S.B. 965, which state lawmakers passed more than 15 years ago.

National guidelines, as they stand, require schools to maintain menu and production records to show that they have fed students one-third of the recommended daily dietary allowances for protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C and calorie levels. They also call for foods that are low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

California’s guidelines place limitations on components such as sugar and saturated fat. They allow only 35 percent of a meal’s food weight to come from sugar, and only 35 and 10 percent of its calories to come from fat and saturated fat, respectively. The guidelines also place limitations on beverages, restricting any added sweetener in water and juices.

Snack Food Calculator shows which  foods meet California’s school nutrition standards.

Shuster thinks the large body of guidelines, while well-intended, amounts to overkill.  “This is the simplest food, in my opinion,” he said.  “It’s not rocket science. But the paperwork makes it more difficult than any other venues I’ve been in.”

The Washington-based Institute of Medicine created the new school nutrition guidelines under oversight from First Lady Michelle Obama. The proposed changes fill a 73-page document that sits heavily on Shuster’s desk.

They are part of the Let’s Move! campaign, which the first lady launched in response to skyrocketing obesity and Type-2, or adult-onset, diabetes rates.

Reports from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention show about 1.9 million Americans age 20 years or older had pre-diabetes in 2008, and 1.9 million people in the same age range were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2010.

And the California Department of Public Health reports that the prevalence of diabetes in pregnant women – known as gestational diabetes – increased 60 percent in the state between 1997 and 2005.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the burden of diabetes and pre-diabetes is $700 for every man, woman, and child in the country, representing a sort of “hidden tax” through higher insurance premiums.

Researchers are increasingly focusing on the role that sugar and salt consumption are playing in the expensive epidemic. (Story continues below)

This graph shows the disparity in sugar-intake recommendations from the American Heart Association, Institute of Medicine, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mayo Clinic and Center for Disease Control. (CHART: Christy Park)

The American Heart Association in January called for stricter guidelines on sodium consumption; and medical professionals gathered this month at UC Davis to discuss research that links consumption of sugar-sweetened foods to symptoms of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, increased triglycerides, fatty liver and harmful fat deposits.

“It’s not just the fact that people are getting fat,” said Dr. Kimber Stanhope, who helped author the UC Davis study. “It’s what they’re eating that matters.”

Of course, settling on a single set of nutritional standards is difficult given that experts often disagree on hard-line recommended intakes.  And seemingly insignificant changes – like replacing much of the starch on current school lunch menus with higher-fiber option, as the new guidelines would do – can face significant challenges from stakeholders. The National Potato Council, for instance, is asking others in the agribusiness world to “stand up for potatoes in schools” by lobbying the USDA before the public comment period closes on April 13.

Shuster said that, whatever new guidelines the USDA decides on, school administrators tend to look at student health as a secondary concern, with academic performance being the top priority.

“The number one thing is, kids are here to learn,” he said. “Food unfortunately goes on the back burner, no pun intended.”

Shuster said he would need around $4.50 per student for food costs – not counting the money that pays for employees – to produce a high-quality school lunch. That’s more than four times his current budget.

“Everybody’s talking about obesity, nutrition, how breakfast is more important,” Shuster said. “Is it really a priority, though? Not really.”

How much bang do you get for your nutritional buck?

The chart above shows nutritional units per dollar provided by various fast-food restaurants near Fremont High School.
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