Since 1946, the USDA Child Nutrition Programs has maintained a mission of providing healthy school meals to children all across America in grades K12. Today, this federally funded program serves lunch to 31 million children and breakfast to 14 million children every day. Although the program was created to provide nutritionally low-cost or free school meals to children in need, students and their families from diverse socio-economic backgrounds are realizing the value a healthy school meal can offer for their students mental and physical performance.
To combat, or prevent, dwindling participation, school foodservice leaders realized that first and foremost, students needed to be served foods they would love to eat.
There have always been regulations regarding what must be served for a school meal. These regulations were designed based upon recommendations from scientific resources that provide evidence on eating behaviors that would promote health and wellness and prevent disease. In 2012, for the first time in 15 years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule updating meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. For some school foodservice operations, as well as food manufacturers and suppliers, this created a significant change in school nutrition business operations. It further signaled to school leaders, teachers, parents and students that school nutrition was embarking on a new path. Since 2012, the school meal reform has created an unprecedented platform for USDA Child Nutrition Services department, as well as foodservice programs in schools. Specifically, the standards have helped highlight the important role that Child Nutrition Services plays in the students’ overall health and well-being.
The revised nutrition standards have required schools to increase healthy food offerings, including fruits and vegetables and whole grain-rich products, as well as reduce levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. The standards also set grade level-specific calorie requirements for meals when averaged over a week. School districts were required to comply with the revised federal meal standards beginning July 1, 2012, with provisions phased in through school year 2022 – 2023.
After the initial implementation, schools across America were met with resistance. Some of the initial challenges that schools faced included push back from students who witnessed a change in portion sizes, were being told they must take a fruit or vegetable with their meal and in some cases, were served new whole grain products that did not meet their approval. Concerns of dwindling participation and food waste escalated, but School Foodservice Directors all across the nation rose to the challenge to ensure students were well nourished and satisfied. The importance of the School Foodservice Director was amplified as their actions would prove to play a critical role in the implementation of the new regulations and the sustainment of customer satisfaction.
To combat, or prevent, dwindling participation, school foodservice leaders realized that first and foremost, students needed to be served foods they would love to eat. Foodservice Directors from self-operated and food service management companies, as well as food manufacturers, non-profit organizations, chefs and dietitians all came together to develop new recipes, ingredients and products that would meet new regulatory requirements, while also meeting the meal costs limitations of tight school foodservice budgets. In addition to these efforts, the USDA, as well as state agencies that help to administer the child nutrition programs, created training opportunities that would help improve culinary skills of frontline staff, provided education on topics such as behavioral economics to help drive student participation, and offered numerous resources to help schools with menu planning. Since 2012, the USDA has also collected significant volumes of feedback from school nutrition programs regarding challenges in meeting the new school meal requirements. As a consequence, USDA is now offering some flexibility to the final rule that was implemented in 2012.
This brings us to the start of the School year 2018-19. The new School Meal Flexibility Rule, implemented in November 2017, makes targeted changes to standards for meals provided under USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. This rule focuses on flexibilities with whole grains, sodium and milk. The interim final rule gives schools the option to serve low-fat (1 percent) flavored milk. With the initial 2012 final rule schools were permitted to serve only low-fat and non-fat unflavored milk as well as non-fat flavored milk.
States will also be allowed to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole grain-rich products acceptable to students during School Year (SY) 2018-2019. Originally food costs, student acceptance, and the availability of product were the primary challenges reported in implementing the whole grain-rich requirement in full. Much like whole grain rich products, schools and industry shared a need for more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals. So…instead of further restricting sodium levels for SY 2018-2019, schools that meet the current – “Target 1” – limit will be considered compliant with USDA’s sodium requirements.
As School Foodservice Directors reflect on the flexibility being offered by USDA, a few key points need to be considered. The first is the reality that this rule will be in effect for SY 2018-2019. It is not a final change to the initial regulation set in place back in 2012. USDA will be accepting public comments on these flexibilities via www.regulations.gov to inform the development of a final rule, which will address the availability of these three flexibilities in the long term. The second key point is centered around the word “hardship” as it relates to flexibility with the whole grains. Hardships may include those caused by lack of availability in the market, financial concerns, an increase in plate waste, lack of student acceptability, and “others”. State approval is required to implement the whole grain flexibility.
As School Foodservice Directors embark on a new year, the following points represent suggestions to help move forward in meeting the original 2012 nutrition standards for school meals.
- Assess your overall success with participation and evaluate opportunities for growth
- Talk with other school districts that are meeting all the established meal requirements and learn from their success
- Reach out to your State Agency if you are struggling to meet any of the school meal requirements. Often you will find that they have training resources to help you achieve success.
- Talk with your food suppliers about lower-sodium meal options and whole-grain rich products that have been student tested and approved. As industry has increased the variety and quality of their offerings, schools are finding it easier to source lower-sodium and whole-grain rich options.
- If possible, work with a team of chefs and registered dietitians to design and/or source healthier ingredients, create recipes and implement compliant menus that will satisfy student taste buds
- Taste test new products or recipes with students
- Check out the USDA Team Nutrition page for training grants and education: https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/team-nutrition
- Work with your community. Help community leaders and parents understand school nutrition programs, the regulations and the importance of encouraging student participation.
- Engage with Farm To School programs to help reinforce the value of locally, grown foods.
Often we hear “it takes a village” and in the case of child nutrition this is so true. School Nutrition programs are offering one step in a process of encouraging a lifetime of healthy eating for students. A coordinated, comprehensive approach that teaches at home, in the community and in the classroom will help reinforce the value of the meals being served in the dining room. The ultimate outcome of healthy eating on student performance is well documented with evidence showing increases in attendance across all grades, better concentration and behavior in the classroom and improvements in academic outcomes.
If school nutrition programs want to grow, or continue, their success, they must engage their most valuable customer…the student. Students know what students want. Giving students a voice, offering students a choice and engaging them in hands-on learning experiences will create a win-win situation for students, school nutrition programs and school leaders.