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New School Lunch Rules: Dinosaur Nuggets and Chocolate Milk Still on the Menu

The USDA has issued its much-anticipated revisions to school lunch nutrition standards -- the first in 15 years -- and the food service industry is probably heaving a big sigh of relief. That's because, despite additional required servings of fruits and vegetables for kids, this is not Jamie Oliver's or Ann Cooper's fresh-cooked vision of school lunch. (It's probably a lot closer to Michelle Obama's less ambitious, industry-friendly ideas of reform.)

The new rules -- an attempt by the government to address alarming and depressing rates of childhood -- mostly leave intact the system of frozen, processed food that serves as the foundation of most public school lunches. This system, called "commodity processing" by the USDA, represents a lucrative business for companies like Tyson Food Service (TSN), the Schwan Food Company and ConAgra (CAG). Some feared that the school reform movement, led by mediagenic advocates like Oliver and Cooper, would upend this market. But that, at least as far as USDA rules go, has turned out not to be the case.

Tyson will still be able to sell its chicken dinosaur nuggets and Schwan will still get to serve its Big Daddy's pizza to millions of school children. And, in a big win for the dairy industry, kids can still drink flavored milk, though now it needs to be nonfat. Chocolate milk has been under heavy assault from nutrition experts who point out that it has as much added sugar as a bottle of Pepsi, and the National Dairy Council has been fighting to keep it in schools through a promotional campaign called "Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk!".

Here's some of what's laid out in the new rules, which are still in the proposed stage and thus subject to revision and a possible hailstorm of lobbying:

  • Reduce sodium in meals by almost half over the next 10 years.
  • Establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time.
  • Serve only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk.
  • A serving of fruit must be offered daily at breakfast and lunch and two servings of vegetables offered at lunch.
  • Over the course of a week, there must be a serving of each of the following: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy and other vegetables.
  • Also for the first time, half of all the grains served must be whole grains.
  • Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and green peas, to one cup a week.

Although these rules are mostly good news for the food companies that sell to schools, they're going to necessitate some changes, like reducing sodium levels and increasing the use of whole wheat. Schwan, the largest seller of school pizza, has already pledged to reduce sodium at least 10% by this fall, and it's going to need to start adding more whole wheat to its pizza crusts. And milk giant Dean Foods (DF) is looking for ways to reduce its sugar content.

These sorts of nutrient nips and tucks are something food companies can work with. The new rules will mean more fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, but they'll also mean that lunch ladies still be heating up lots of stuff they've collected from the freezer. The USDA chose to avoid the difficult discussion of whole foods that have to be subjected to actual cooking versus processed items that are designed to be ultra convenient for the same reason they gave a pass to chocolate milk -- the industry would have screamed. As the agency writes in its 77-page proposed rule, "Processed foods and convenience items are often used in the school food service operation to save time and labor."

Image from Tyson Food Service


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