Big Changes In The School Cafeteria


School cafeteria food is getting a major facelift. For the first time in 15 years, the USDA has raised the standards for school meals eaten by nearly 32 million American kids each week day. It’s just one part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity.

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” the First Lady says in a statement about the new guidelines. “And when we're putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”

The new school meal regulations call for: 

• Fruits and vegetables in school meals every week day;

• A significant increase in whole grain foods;

• Only fat-free or low-fat milk;

• Portion sizes limited to a total calorie count appropriate for the age of the kids served; and

• More focus on reducing saturated and trans fats and sodium. 

The rules are based on recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine; they were also modified to take into account more than 130,000 public comments submitted when the regulations were first proposed. They won’t be easily implemented, however; the new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years, the USDA says, and are just one of five major parts of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. Among the improvements still to come are: 

• New restrictions on what can and can’t be sold in school vending machines;

• Increased federal funding for school meals (an additional 6 cents a meal) based on how much a school improves its meal program; and

• Training and support to help schools comply with the new rules. 

The rules will affect the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, the Summer Food Service Program, and supplemental food assistance programs, including the one for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

– Deirdre Wilson