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New School Food Rules: What You Should Know

This article was submitted by Needham Public Schools Nutrition Services Director Ruth Griffin.

Everything You Never-Even-Knew-There-Was-to-Know about the New School Food Regulations. 

By Ruth Griffin, RD, SNS
Submitted by the Needham Public Health Department

As students return to school this fall, school cafeterias across America will be doing things a little differently as they prepare to feed “their kids” and strive to meet tough new federal nutrition standards for school meals. 

The new USDA standards are required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and are based on research and current understanding of human nutrition and prevention of diseases and health conditions including obesity. The last update to school meals standards was over 15 years ago. This is a good thing for the children in our country!

What's different?

In a nutshell, the school lunch tray should now look a lot like the new USDA’s “MyPlate”—the new guide for healthy eating, replacing the “My Pyramid” and the very old “Food Guide Pyramid." On “MyPlate,” half the plate is filled with fruits and vegetables (more vegetables than fruit), and the other half of the plate is split between grains and protein-rich foods (more grain than protein). And, of course, a lunch (or any diet) is not complete without a one-cup serving of low fat or fat free milk.

The major USDA meal pattern changes:

A. Under the new standards, it is required for students to take at least 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable as part of their meal, in order for it to be sold and claimed as a “meal." Students will be encouraged and reminded to take at least a 1/2 cup serving with each meal. 

B. Portions of fruits and vegetables offered will be larger, and there will be a deliberate inclusion  on the menu, of required minimum amounts of vegetables in five different categories due to their richness in different nutrients:

  1. dark green   
  2. red/orange  
  3. legumes   
  4. starchy   
  5. “other” vegetables. 

C.  Meats and “meat-alternate” portion sizes are regulated by age group (as all other food groups, as well). Minimum and maximum portion limits create the proper balance of foods and nutrients in the meal.

D.  Grains / breads are regulated in both portion size limits for age groups, as well as content of the grain. This year, at least half of grain products offered must be “whole grain rich” (which means at least half of the grain has to be a whole grain). In two more years, all grains offered in the school meals program must be whole.

E.  Of the five food groups offered (meat, vegetable, fruit, grain, milk) students must take at least three food groups (and one of them has to be a fruit or vegetable) in order for it to be considered a complete meal. Schools need to serve and sell complete meals, as opposed to a la carte food items, in order to assure they are nourishing students adequately, and to receive reimbursement from USDA to help support meals program and keep healthy meal prices low.

F.  Meals are now limited to a slightly lower calorie range, are taking graduated steps to lower sodium levels and limit saturated fat to 10 percent, and are trans-fat free.

How will Needham school lunches be different?

In Needham, there has been a of making healthy changes, so lunch will not look very different now that it is required at all schools. 

Needham Public School District cafeterias have been transitioning to whole grains (now about 90 percent whole grains) for the past four to five years. Fruits and vegetables have been offered in great variety, and in unlimited portions. Cafeteria staff has been encouraging students to take fruits and vegetables with each lunch. Now, students will be required to take a fruit or vegetable. There will be many great options to make it easy for students to meet this requirement.

Milk will be in 8-ounce bottles, instead of 10 ounces at and . At the high school, some exciting new made-to-order lunches will replace some not-as-healthy old favorites, like popcorn chicken.  There will be more places where students can get vegetables, salads and fruits.

New state nutrition standards for competitive foods

In addition to the new federal regulations, Massachusetts passed legislation in 2010, which takes effect this fall, regulating foods and beverages sold a la carte in the cafeteria, in school stores, and in vending machines, with limits on calories, fat, sugar, sodium, whole grain and overall portion sizes. 

In Needham, minor changes may be noted at the middle and high school: a few different snack items, and bottles of juice will not be sold because the 10-ounce portion size exceeds the limits of the nutrition standards. Flavored milk is non-fat and will continue to be sold as a powerful nutrient-rich performance food.

Students will probably not notice many changes in Needham, though other districts are experiencing a bit more growing pains.

It’s good to be ahead of the curve. 

Eat Well! Be Fit! Needham.

Ruth Griffin, RD, SNS, is the nutrition services director for the Needham Public Schools.  he is also a member of Eat Well Be Fit Needham, a committee dedicated to improving the health and well-being of Needham residents. This town-wide committee is composed of concerned professionals consisting of the Needham Health Department, Needham Public Schools, , nutritionists, physicians, Needham Park and Recreation Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and local residents and businesses. For more information about this committee, or to see past articles, contact the Needham Public Health Department at 781-455-7500 ext. 511 or visit their website at http://needhamma.gov/EWBF.

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