Food industry grades school meal nutrition standards

by Jay Sjerven
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Several food industry groups have offered their views on the new nutrition standards for the national school lunch and school breakfast programs issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 25. The standards, the first significant update to nutrition rules applying to federally subsidized meals served in schools in 15 years, are based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and emphasize the importance of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or no-fat dairy products and whole grains. For the first time, calorie caps will be required on entire school meals, according to age group, and a reduction in sodium content of meals will be phased in over 10 years.

The United Fresh Produce Association enthusiastically endorsed the new nutrition standards.
“Children like fresh fruits and vegetables, and they will be eating more next school year when this regulation takes effect,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice-president of nutrition and health at the U.F.P.A.
At the same time, John Keeling, executive vice-president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, said his group was concerned that the final regulations fall short of giving schools flexibility in meeting nutritional goals.

“The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet U.S.D.A.’s nutrition, caloric, fat and sodium requirements,” he said.

Under the final rule, vegetables were designated a food group separate from fruits, and schools were required to offer from all the vegetable subgroups identified in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (dark green, red/orange, beans and peas, starchy and other vegetables).

The U.S.D.A. earlier proposed to limit starchy vegetables such as potatoes served at lunch to 1 cup per week for all age groups. That proposal was opposed by potato producers, legislators and many state and local school meal program oper-ators. In response to their concerns and as required by provisions included in the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Act, which blocked the department’s proposed limit on starchy vegetables, the U.S.D.A. in the final rule indicated “we are removing the proposed limit on starchy vegetables and instead requiring schools to offer at least minimum quantities of all of the vegetable subgroups in the National School Lunch Program over the course of the week.”

Mark Szymanski, an N.P.C. spokesman, said, “We still feel like the potato is downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines. It seems the department still considers the potato a second-class vegetable.”

The dairy industry applauded the U.S.D.A. standards for emphasizing the nutritional role dairy products play in school meals. At the same time, the International Dairy Foods Association expressed concern that restrictions on flavored milk may reduce overall milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthful beverages.

The new standards require schools to offer 8 oz of fluid milk with each school lunch and breakfast, but only low-fat and fat-free plain milk and fat-free flavored milks would be allowed. Low-fat flavored milk is not approved under the standards.

“Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety of a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption,” said Connie Tipton, president and c.e.o. of the I.D.F.A.

The U.S.D.A. was directed by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to establish nutrition standards for foods offered in schools but not subsidized by the federal government. Such foods would include a la carte foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines. Those standards were expected to be similar to those applying to subsidized lunches and breakfasts, but the U.S.D.A. has yet to propose them. Until then, Ms. Tipton said that milk would continue to compete with less healthful beverages. She pointed to research indicating when beverages other than milk, 100% juice and water are widely offered to students, milk consumption in schools drops 9% to 28% from what otherwise would be the case.

The American Meat Institute noted the new standards indicated meat will no longer be required as part of school breakfast because of the need to control costs.

“At a time when childhood obesity is such a major issue, we are concerned about deemphasizing meat at breakfast,” said Betsy Booren, director of scientific affairs, American Meat Institute Foundation. “In 2011, a key University of Missouri study concluded that protein at breakfast actually enhanced appetite and weight control in teens, A study in International Journal of Obesity reached similar conclusions. Lean meat and poultry items as part of breakfast are enjoyed by children and teens and will help satisfy longer.”

A central feature of the standards was its requirement that sodium content of school meals must be reduced incrementally over the next 10 years.

Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, expressed disappointment with the standards’ targeting of sodium content in school meals.

“We should not subject our schoolchildren or any of our citizens to what amounts to a giant lab experiment,” Ms. Roman said. “There are negative health consequences of a low-salt diet. For many children, a school lunch is their main meal of the day. They simply need salt, an essential nutrient recent medical studies associate with longer life, less heart disease and lower cholesterol, among other health benefits. Also, salt makes healthy food taste better. Do federal bureaucrats really believe kids would eat broccoli or spinach without salt?”
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