School lunches get a 21st-century makeover

By Meris Stansbury, Associate Editor
September 12th, 2012

School cafeterias are using cutting-edge market research to help get kids to eat healthy.

“Woohoo! It’s tater tot day!” might be a phrase of the past, thanks to new updates in federal guidelines regulating school lunch programs—the first in 15 years.

With new limits on calories, sodium, and saturated fats, as well as increases in minimums for fruits and vegetables, schools are revisiting their nutrition management. Thankfully, there are software programs, apps, and websites available to help schools, parents, and students make the transition successfully.

The updated federal guidelines were devised by the Agriculture Department and spurred by celebrity campaigns such as Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” to rethink school lunch components and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” to fight childhood obesity. They aim to improve the National School Lunch program by combating obesity, nutrition deficits, and hunger.

The changes were released in January and took effect this school year. They include the first national calorie and sodium limits for what can be served on lunch lines. Each new guideline is specific for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

For example, according to the School Nutrition Association, students in grades 9-12 should have 10 to 12 servings of grains per week and 10 to 12 ounces of meats and meat alternatives (such as nuts, tofu, cheese, and eggs) per week. By July 14, 2014, sodium levels for lunches should not exceed 740 milligrams for grades 9-12, and a timetable sets targets for further reducing sodium levels by 2022.

For fats, no more than 10 percent saturated fats are allowable, and no trans-fats, except for those naturally occurring in meat and dairy products, are allowable. Also, students in grades 9-12 should only have 750 to 850 calories per day; calories can be averaged over the week.

These new guidelines (the full guidelines can be found here) aim to help close nutrient gaps by providing one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories, essentially creating more nutrient-dense lunches.

These nutrient-dense lunches often were lacking in public schools, proponents of the new rules say, because budget cuts have forced most schools to forgo cooking fresh food in their cafeterias and instead buy pre-prepared lunches. These pre-prepared foods must be cheap and hold up during the ride from where they are prepared, usually resulting in students eating plenty of processed, high-sodium food.

Constance Brown-Riggs, an award-winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, described in a recent article how school lunches now might look different.

For example, pizza is experiencing a major overhaul with a low-fat, whole-grain crust, higher fiber, modified salt, and reduced fat and sodium cheese.

Before, she explained, a school lunch could have looked like this: A “bean and cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese, one-fourth cup applesauce, four ounces of orange juice, and eight ounces of 2-percent milk.” Now, after the new updates, a school lunch might look like this: A “submarine sandwich (once ounce of turkey, one-half ounce of low-fat cheese) on a whole wheat roll, one-half cup refried beans, one-half cup of jicama, one-fourth cup of green pepper strips, one-half cup of fresh cantaloupe wedges, eight ounces of skim milk, one packet mustard, one ounce reduced fat mayonnaise, and one ounce of low-fat ranch dip.”

“That’s actually a bigger meal,” said Brown-Riggs, “but it’s more nutrient-dense and has fewer calories.”

Though the new updates sound good in theory, already schools and parents are experiencing some setbacks.