The New School Food Regs: Why I'm Putting My Money on the Class of 2024

COMMERCIAL IMAGE - In this photograph released by HBO on Wednesday May 2, 2012, Students of Lasley Elementary School in Lakew
COMMERCIAL IMAGE - In this photograph released by HBO on Wednesday May 2, 2012, Students of Lasley Elementary School in Lakewood, Colo., Isabel Martinez, Dillon Bushlack, and Kaela Salas, enjoy a healthy lunch from their new salad bar, courtesy of HBO’s The Weight of the Nation campaign in Lakewood, Colo. (Jack Dempsey/AP Images for HBO)

Iowa Congressman Steve King, a critic of the new school food regulations, made news earlier this week by introducing a bill to roll back the regulations' new calorie limits. Called the "No Hungry Kids Act," King's proposed legislation (co-sponsored by fellow Republican Tim Huelskamp) would allow schools to serve unlimited calories to children rather than capping meals at 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for grades 6-8 and 850 calories for high schoolers.

Said King:

"For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches. ... The goal of the school lunch program was -- and is -- to insure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn.

The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama's 'Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,' was interpreted by Secretary [Tom] Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want."

As Greg Noth pointed out on Think Progress, one of the ironies here is that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act actually expands access to food for economically disadvantaged kids through a variety of programs.  It's also worth noting that King is currently fighting to retain his congressional seat against a challenge by Christie Vilsack, wife of the aforementioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  That might explain King's politicizing of this issue, despite the fact that 39 percent of elementary-aged children in King's state of Iowa are currently overweight.

But cynicism aside, the new school meal regulations have changed school lunches in significant ways and not all of them have been positively received by kids, parents or school food service directors.

The most obvious change is the increase in fruits and vegetables, a laudable development but not one that's always popular with kids.  Almost daily, I get Google alerts to local news stories about kids spurning the produce on their trays, either tossing the fruits and vegetables in the trash or giving the food to friends.  (And I've certainly seen this firsthand -- my district admirably sources local produce and I watch in dismay as many kids throw it right into the garbage, uneaten.)

But many people remain unaware of another big change to school meals -- a new cap on the total amount of meat and grains which can be served weekly.  San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow had a piece last month that demonstrated how these grain/meat limits can really complicate a district's menu planning, a sentiment shared by a source to whom I spoke in my own district, Houston ISD.  In a subsequent interview by Dana Woldow with Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch (a private school meal catering company), Gagnon, too, was very critical of the grain and meat limits, arguing that they encourage districts to increase the use of fats and fillers.

Meanwhile, in a widely circulated story last week, the Associated Press gave the new school meals a "mixed grade" and further reported, consistent with the statements of Congressman King, that some kids (particularly teenagers and athletes) are going hungry after school meals, a situation that's led to various student protests around the country.

So what are we to make of all this?

As someone who only sits on the sidelines when it comes to serving school meals, I always respect the feedback of those "behind the line." If they're telling us that the grain and meat limits hamper their efforts to provide filling, varied meals, then clearly we have a problem there.

But when it comes to kids spurning fruits and vegetables, or generally shying away from healthier entrees, I wholeheartedly agree with this most recent opinion piece by Dana Woldow (yes, I'm citing Dana again!), who urges us not to rush to judgment just yet.

Back in 2010, I wrote an editorial in the Houston Chronicle praising my district for introducing new vegetables but warning that students were likely to reject those foods unless we made efforts to educate them and encourage experimentation.

And when it was widely reported last year that students in Los Angeles USD hated that district's improved menu, I went further by arguing that students' complaints might, in the end, be irrelevant:

[T]he hard truth is this: if we really intend to wean an entire generation of children off school food "carnival fare" (nachos, nuggets, burgers and fries) and introduce them to fresher, healthier entrees, we are, without question, going to lose some kids along the way.  In other words, it's just not that surprising if a middle- or high schooler who's seen nothing but "better-for-you junk food"on his tray since kindergarten can't make the leap to black bean burgers and salad, especially if there's no context for healthier foods in his life outside of school.

But a kindergartener who's never seen anything but black bean burgers and salads in the cafeteria is going to be a much easier sell on healthier foods throughout his school years.  And that young child is our only hope if we're going to reverse current trends in obesity and poor lifestyle habits among our nation's children.  So if our choice is to continue the dismal school food status quo because "that's all kids will eat," or knowingly lose some kids now to Flaming Hot Cheetos and Cokes with an eye toward those impressionable, incoming kindergarteners and all the classes that will follow them, I can live with sacrificing a few for the many.

With respect to the new meal regulations, Dana echoes this same sentiment:

It is the 5 and 6 year olds who are the real targets here. Even if these youngsters are seeing a lot of fast food or junk food at home, they have no expectation of seeing such delights in the school cafeteria. For them, the only school food they know is what they are seeing this year, and while it may look unfamiliar, at least they don't have the mindset of older students who feel that their rightful heap of chicken nuggets has been snatched away.

It will likely take years to see the full effect of the new school food rules. As today's kindergarten students move through their school years, the hope is that they will choose fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria every day as a matter of course, because they taste good, they are healthy, and that's what the rules are. They won't know that the rules were ever any different.

So before we throw up our hands and say kids just won't eat fruits and vegetables at school, or they must have their fries and nuggets lest they starve, let's agree to meet back here in 2024.   That's when this year's entering elementary school class will graduate from high school, and (unless Congressman King has his way) they will never have known anything but the improved school meals mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The sight of fruits and vegetables on their tray will simply be a given. They will not expect daily desserts, a crutch often used by districts in the past to meet the old regulations' calorie minimums.  They will have no memory of the "good old days," when districts like mine could offer for lunch in a single week: breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza, and "Frito Pie" -- with the latter two entrees served with mashed potatoes. Or as Dana charmingly puts it:

... being introduced to jicama sticks or kiwi fruit is just like meeting a new teacher, or venturing onto the playground with 50 other whirling dervishes, or participating in show and tell -- it is one more exciting part of "big kids school," one that may be a little scary at first, but that becomes more familiar with time, until eventually it is welcomed as a friend.