The Not-So-Extreme School Lunch Makeover

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined celebrity chef Rachael Ray to announce changes to the school lunch program. This desired national update is the first in more than fifteen years. After the announcement, the First Lady and the others joined schoolchildren at Parklawn Elementary School for lunch. The lunch consisted of recipes created for the occasion by Rachael Ray to demonstrate how tasty the new regulations can be.  
While there was legislative debate regarding how some foods fit into a healthier student meal, in the end the final goals seem to have been achieved to provide healthier guidelines for the national program. Starting next school year, students will find lunch offerings designed to match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans using the newly updated national food icon as a guide. While this is exciting, it will bring financial concerns for many school districts as well. The updated meal requirement will be more costly to provide when districts are already facing tight budgets. Although six cents per lunch will be provided through Federal reimbursement, this amount isn't expected to match the increased cost per meal to produce meals that meet these guidelines.
The new guidelines require schools to offer more nutrient dense menus by increasing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free fluid milk and low-fat dairy while lowering meal sodium, saturated and trans fat levels. While many schools have already made changes in the milk they offer, here are the additional changes students and parents will find next fall.

The new nutrition standards are for all school meals but the plan will be phased in with improvements in school lunches first before focusing on breakfast updates. Since more students eat school lunch compared to school breakfast, this approach allows the most children to benefit from the updates. This chart fully outlines the differences between the old regulations and the new but here are the highlights.
Fruits and Vegetables – In the old requirements, fruits and vegetables counted as one combined group and only one-half to three-fourths cup total serving was required regardless of student age. Now there is a set requirement for both fruits AND vegetables. Three-fourths to one cup of vegetables in now required daily AND there is a weekly requirement for inclusion of dark green, red/orange, legumes and starchy vegetables as well.  This helps ensure students will be eating a rainbow of vegetables and not just potatoes or salsa every day. Students will also be served a one-half to one cup serving of fruit each day in addition to their vegetables.
Meat and Meat Alternate – A one and a half to two equivalent ounce non age-specific guideline was the daily minimum requirement under the old regulations. Now there are daily and weekly minimums and age-related range requirements. Students in grades K-5 are to receive one equivalent meat ounce daily with eight to ten ounces weekly. Grades 6-8 will also receive at least one equivalent ounce daily but with a nine to ten ounce weekly requirement. High school students in grades 9-12 are to receive at least two equivalent ounces with ten to twelve ounces per week. The requirement for weekly offerings of legumes listed above will certainly encourage the creation of more meat alternative options for students to try.
Grains – Under the previous program, students were to be offered eight grain servings a week with at least one served per day regardless of age and whole grains were only encouraged but not required. Now there are daily and weekly ranges based on student age as well as the requirement that at least half of the grains offered be whole grains. The new requirement builds on whole grains and requires that all grains served by July 1, 2014 be whole grain rich. Students in grades K-5 will be receiving at least one equivalent ounce of grains daily with eight to nine ounces each week. Grades 6-8 will receive the same minimum each day but with eight to ten ounce equivalence each week. High school students in grades 9-12 will receive a minimum of two equivalent ounces with a weekly total of ten to twelve ounces.
Milk – Although a cup of milk has always been a school lunch requirement, in the old plan there were no guidelines related to fat content or flavor inclusion. In the new plan, one cup is still the serving requirement but flavored milk must be fat-free and unflavored milk must not contain more than one percent milk fat. Sadly, there are no guidelines for milk substitutions or alternatives. Since many children cannot drink milk this may cause them to omit this food group all together resulting in a deficit in key nutrients through their school lunch.
The Bottom Line
The new school lunch guidelines will certainly help move things forward toward the First Lady's goal of reducing childhood obesity in a generation. Last week Mrs. Obama stated, “When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them at home.” However, many families are still eating fatty, salty, and sugary foods at home. We are hopeful that these new guidelines along with the MyPlate information will transfer to the home front as well. The best way to move forward in the battle against childhood obesity is for schools, families, and communities to work together.
Our children will begin to learn healthy meal planning as they stop seeing school menus with hot dogs on a white spongy bun with ketchup packets and canned fruit covered in syrup and start enjoying whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, colorful cooked vegetables and a piece of fresh fruit. Even when they are enjoying pizza, they will be able to learn that cheese pizza with a whole-wheat crust tastes just as great at those with enriched white crusts. It will most likely take time for many students to taste grape tomatoes, kiwi slices, or refried beans let alone consume the entire serving simply because they are new foods that they don't commonly see at home. However, it does open the door for parents to begin trying some of these foods at home when they see them on their child's school lunch menu.
Because healthier meals can be more costly, it will be imperative for local food service administrators in school districts across the nation to be creative. Identifying local food sourcing will help them manage fresh produce costs while limiting waste. Smaller districts working cooperatively with food purchasing arrangements will maximize lowest cost buying opportunities. Taking a critical look at staffing assignments related to food ordering, preparation and service will limit personal costs by focusing on working smarter instead of longer or harder.
There are critics who simply don't like the government's involvement in dictating what school's offer at lunch even though it is a Federal responsibility. Others bulk at the increased lunch prices that will certainly come for those that don't receive free or reduced lunches. Still others complain that these new guidelines don't go far enough and children should not be served pizza or potatoes at all. While we certainly understand these concerns, we remind everyone that the option of helping your child pack a nutrient rich lunch that keeps them out of the lunch line all together is still available.
What do you think? Are these new guidelines a step in the right direction, too little too late or about time? Take our poll and tell us what makes you most excited or most angry with them?

I believe these new school lunch guidelines are:

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


I think healthy lunches are good but it doesn't look at the underlying causes for why people eat this way - lack of money and lack of education around food. I don't think this is helping combat the first problem. Report
It is a very sad day to realize that we live in a time where the Federal government has to set up guidelines for school lunch programs. The schools should have been doing this all along on their own. It is evidence of people not doing their jobs. What is the whole reason to feed children? To grow up into strong, healthy adults!!! Why weren't they doing that in the first place??? Report
The food was good when I was in school over 30 years passing. What the schools serve now is frustrating. I read meal calendar for one of my grandchildren and discover Chicken Nuggets on the list three times in a single week. I would like to see a change, but I don't like this direction.

Healthy, fresh, foods cost more. The article suggested that schools can decrease the kitchen staff to save money. Fresh foods take more time to prepare so we are asking the REDUCED staff number to working harder...for the same low pay? Report
I work in a school kitchen. The number of children that throw out their entire lunch is amazing. The hardest thing to do each day is to watch these kids throw out so much food. They will take the fresh fruit but not even a bite taken out of it. They hate the new milk Tru Moo. It really does start at home, most of the kids won't try something new. I really do support the new program but I also know that alot of kids will be eating less because they don't like it (or wont try it) and will go home hungry. I think grades 6-12 will be the greatest benefactors of this program. K-5 will be hardest hit at first, hopefully education and time will make it better for them as well. Report
How nice that Michelle Obama is on the campaign trail for her husband with celebrity chef Rachel Ray. She has been on Leno, Disney, an interview with Gail, Orprah's friend. Laura Bush NEVER got this kind of press. So we are condemning fat people and cigarette smokers in this country while medical marijuana is somehow SAFE? The federal government needs to back out of our lives! I am sick of the double standards, what once was bad is suddenly good. Hmmmm... Report
A medium apple weighs about 8 ounces at $2.00 a pound that is only $1.00. Put a 30 cent cheese stick with that apple and you have a good snack that will leave you feeling satisfied for a while. I believe a candy bar costs more than that and I have seen apples on sale for half that. Yes, a bag of chips costs less than a bag of apples, but how long is that bag of chips going to last? Most people eat a lot more than one serving when they get a hold of a bag of chips.
When I was raising my kids we didn't always have enough money they always received free or reduced price school lunch, we even used food stamps from time to time, and we were fortunate to have lived where we could grow our own vegetables. That said we didn’t waste our food stamps on junk like soda, chips and candy. If people would do more of the work when it comes to preparing their own food they would find that they can eat healthier for less. As for having fresh fruit and vegetables on hand all the time often frozen is better than fresh.
Also I know that some parents just won’t feed their kids properly no matter what. I would like to see the schools get more money to pay for the labor of preparing healthy meals for kids, but not to buy more packaged junk. Unsweetened milk and unsweetened milk alternatives should be offered. If a child needs dessert mixed in his milk then it should count as dessert. Yes! They should include a small dessert with school lunch.
It's so easy to condemn our schools for the problems at hand; it takes the responsibility off ourselves. I have no problem with the change in regulations, I do wish that the federal government would provide the money for already financially stretched well managed school districts to pay for any additional costs....but our taxes would have to go up or something else that is vital would be lost. This sounds good but 180 meals over the course of a year vs. other meals at home....if there are meals at home and snacks in front of the television. Hmmm...... Report
That is good that the kids are given a healthy choice. sometimes my daughter will not eat lunch while at school because she don't what to eat the school food. Some kids want to eat healthy. They(the kids that want to eat healthy) have a healthy choice of food. Report
I agree that is at least a step in the right direction. I also know of school districts who already operate under these guidelines and some of the good guidelines expressed in these comments. Michelle Obama didn't get all of the changes she wanted but these guidelines move in the right direction. Perhaps another change can be around the corner. Report
As a mom of a 7 year old daughter, I am very happy to see these changes. I don't think this will be a problem with my daughter because she is already eating these things at home. At first, she wouldn't eat vegetables, but slowly, I was able to get her to eat even the vegetables she said she would never eat. It is still a work in progress, but we will get there. The funny thing is, she now prefers my cooking to her Grandmothers now, it used to be reversed, and her Grandmother prepares alot of prepared foods. There are times she still wants those prepared things, but, she gets a lesson in moderation with it. I have her bring her lunch to school because I control, to an extent, what she is eating, and allow her to have treats at school every now and then. It will be a relief to know that these types of foods are going to be offered to her there, and personally, I would be willing to spend more money on her food, because in the end, I know her health will be better for it. Report
Unfornately these changes are really meaningless, have worked in schools for the past 5 years and am amazed at what the kids throw away because they have no choices and they don't like something it just goes straight to the trash. Many of the kids don't even see this food at home, fast food and pizza is the staple in to many house holds. Rarely see a child take White Milk the majority preferr Chocolate, what is nice is some schools have bottled water for an additional cost and some students to like that over milk. Have never seen a salad bar for the students, and the snacks is what they take and buy with their money. Report
I think it is great that students will have healthier choices at school. However, there are places across the country that ban students from bringing their own lunch. So you cannot say if you don't like what the schools are serving bring your own. Report
There is a difference in the words 'balk' and 'bulk.' Just saying. Report
I retired in 2010 after a 24 year stint as a public school district food service director. Our schools had been on 1% and FF milk for over 10 years. There was at least 1 fresh fruit and 1 fresh vegetable every day in addition to canned (light juice) and frozen fruits and vegetables for longer than that. All fryers went out in 2006. 90% of the bread products were whole grains. The fruits & vegetables were on a salad bar if the kids wanted to come back for more.
In regards to the comment of flavored milk; we had chocolate & white milks, kids preferred the chocolate and we let them since it was a darn sight better than what many of them brought from home when they packed a lunch. Schools take a bad rap when it's the home eating that gets many of these kids in trouble. When we put plums on the serving line the first time, we had kids who didn't even know what they were. I had parents scream to the school board when we limited our (low fat) salad dressings to 2 oz portions for entree salads.
I belonged to a food service directors group of over 35 districts and we slaved and fought for better dietary guidelines for our kids. It's about time that a federally funded mandatory program has finally gotten up to speed with what's healthy. And having to push the portions that we had to in order to get reimbursed was a sham. There was no way most of the little kids could eat what was deemed necessary on their plates.
Schools feed kids 180 days or less out of the year, breakfast and lunch. What's mom & dad feeding them the other 185 for breakfast, lunch and dinner? If you have a good income coming in there's the impression that you have fresh fruits and vegetables available. Try doing that with a Bridgecard. Report
I support making school lunches healthier but I already send my children with their own lunches. Where are the schools going to get the money to pay for the increase? Are they going to have to cut yet another valuable program (ie what little pe they have left)? Are they passing it on to the parents or both. 6 cents per meal from the government isn't going to go far. Report
i homeschool but when my child was in public school i was amazed at what they considered a healthy lunch and breakfast was a JOKE!!! may times they had a donught for breakfast or 1 pancake. how can a child go from 7:30 - 11:00 on ONE pancake. but a bigger question is that is schools cant afford to make healthy lunches where 40% or more are on free or reduced lunch (meaning that the government is paying for it) how are the parents supposed to buy healthy food?? i say make fruits and veggies more affordable and make junk food expensive!! they only reason pplbuy it is because you can get 12 snack cakes for 1.25 but have to pay 3.00 for a bag of apples. Report
I don't understand why some parents/people have such a problem with Obama making schools follow healthier guidelines. Pizza and tator tots is ok once in awhile but not on a daily basis. I love the fact that my own child chooses fresh fruit over candy; and broccolli and chick peas over greasy deep fried french fries. I thank God for leading me down this new healthy life style and now I am able teach my child the same good eating habits my parents and school lunch cafeteria didn't teach me. I could appreciate knowing that when my child eats at school it isn't undoing what i'm teaching her at home. Report
My mom works in the school's cafeteria and all of these ideas are already being implemented to great success. It's not like they are pushing fruits and veggies and "healthy" eating on them with no choice. These kids have as many choices for menu items in this cafeteria that they do in a restaurant and there is ALWAYS the choice to bring their own food. I think the hope is to show kids that eating healthy is not life-threatening and eating something that is green, red or orange won't kill you. Report
@MAYAASHIMIPOP, while healthy eating at home may be a realistic vision of most SP members (although if you perused the food trackers at random, you might be surprised), but not for a large portion of the nation. Perhaps you are assuming that the article used "our children" to mean the children of SP members. I assumed it meant the children of Americans in general. Report
so are they going to raise the limit on getting "free and reduced lunches" as it is now our lunches for k-2nd are almost $2.00. If it goes up much more than I won't be able to afford even the once a week she gets now. Report
Is the author of this kidding me?
"It will most likely take time for many students to taste grape tomatoes, kiwi slices, or refried beans let alone consume the entire serving simply because they are new foods that they don't commonly see at home."
This website is devoted to health and wellness and you treat your readers like mindless cows grazing on garbage all day and then feeding it to our children as well. Shame on your ignorance. Report
I am glad they are doing more. This is an important step. I hope there are many more improvements coming. Report
The money the school district saves on all the junk they can no longer serve can be used to offset the cost of the healthier lunches. I for one am thrilled with the changes. I serve healthy meals at home. And on the childhood obesity issue, this is a step in the right direction. Put regular PE classes back on the schedule, and it would be even better. When I was in school (1988-2002), PE was an hour a day, EVERY DAY. My daughter, who is in fourth grade, goes to PE for 35 minutes three days a week. The schools should focus more on physical health and gym classes and less on new football and band uniforms every year. Report
Cows milk is for baby cows- I send my children to school not my calfs. All the nutrients in milk can be given with veggies. Water is cheaper especially if they took it upon themselves to use cups that arent disposable... that's what those big industrial dishwashers are for. Report
While a nutritious school lunch is a start to the obesity problem, activity is the real culprit. Most kids don't walk or bike to school, they don't have PE every day, and they don't play in the neighborhoods after school.

Excuse me for being ignorant but when did "the government's involvement in dictating what school's offer at lunch even though it is a Federal responsibility" come into being?
With 365 days in a year and three meals per day, that is 1095 meals and kids go to school 180 days a year for one meal, so I think the real concern is what PARENTS feed kids at home. But it does help for schools to teach good eating. Report
There are so, so many kids who rely on school lunches (and breakfasts) as a majority of their meals for the week. In the area that I live, there are lots of kids who take backpacks of donated food home on the weekends to feed their families because otherwise, they wouldn't eat.
Anything that can be done to make school meals as nutritious and filling as possible is a good step.
Now, whether the kids eat the food that is being served is another question... Report
This is a good step and the school districts better hurry up and realize that the health if our children is FAR more important than money. Report
the big question: Is ketchup still a vegetable? Report
I voted that it is a step the right direction. Even if parents are not feeding their kids healthy food at home, at least they get some at school.
I both work in a school cafeteria and have school aged kids. I like the changes I see happening. Still, for my own children, I limit them to buying once per week. The rest of the week I make their lunch at home and they pack it with them.
These changes are most important for schools that have a high number of children who qualify for free/reduced lunches - because it's free or almost free, these kids buy every day and the guidelines make sure they aren't existing on M&M and nachos (which I did when I was in junior high, lol). It is hard on school districts, but there is a move towards more cooking and less box opening in the cafeteria itself, which is a very good thing. The workers in my district really do care about serving healthy things. Report
Here's my objection to the critics-when will you be happy? Schools are there to educate children, so why can't they educate by promoting healthy meals? It has to start somewhere. If people don't want to be preached to, then send your kid to school with a packed meal and hope that you're not setting them up for obesity in later life. (Although I imagine they'll leave it a month or two, not see dramatic results and scream how it's not working.) Report
Why do they have flavored milk? Flavored milk has more sugar than most candy bars and artificial colors that have been linked to hyperactivity. And before we replace the sugar with some sugar substitute we must know that sugar substitutes have also been linked to hyperactivity. When I was a kid the only milk offered was whole plain milk, most kids drank it and there may have been one or two "fat kids" but no one ever heard the term, "childhood obesity." If we need to add all that junk to milk just to get a kid to drink it the kid is better off not drinking it!! Report