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How National Dietary Programs Affect Local School Districts

Is the Trump administration’s changes to federally supported school lunch standards a step back from healthy food standards or much needed flexibility for public school food programs? Organizations that focus on health and childhood obesity question the changes, while national groups that oversee school lunch programs welcome the flexibility. 

In Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, as well as schools statewide, staff who oversee lunch and wellness programs said the changes won’t affect their efforts to serve high-quality, healthy breakfasts and lunches to their large and diverse student populations. Of the changes, those involving sodium levels generate the most questions.

In May Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the interim final rule. The USDA is postponing further sodium reductions for at least three years and allowing schools to serve non-whole grain products occasionally. Changes also provide the option to serve 1 percent flavored milk, in place of fat-free flavored milk. 

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a statement. He and USDA officials contend the changes will reduce food waste.

“If kids aren't eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program,” Perdue added.

Cultural issues play a growing role in shaping what is served to students, said Stacy Koppen, director of nutrition services for St. Paul Public Schools. The district’s 39,000 students include a growing Karen immigrant population. 

While other St. Paul students enjoy brown rice dishes, Karen students balk at that ingredient. “In their culture, brown rice is considered to be animal food,” Koppen said. “They’d come to school hungry and they’d still be hungry after lunch. And when students are hungry they cannot learn.” Enriched white rice is among options offered now.

The changes directly affect former First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity and poor nutrition, under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The changes rolled back were adopted in 2012. Sodium levels in school lunches must average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools, 1,360 mg in middle schools and 1,420 mg in high school. Before the rule change schools were to make greater reductions in sodium, to average less than 935 milligrams for elementary schools, 1,035 milligrams for middle schools and 1,080 in high school lunches. Those changes were to take effect July 1 of this year with additional reductions that were to take effect by July 1, 2022.

States can now exempt schools in the 2017-2018 school year from having to replace all their grains with whole-grain rich products if they are experiencing hardship or having trouble meeting the standard. But even with  the changes, at least half of grains offered in meals must be whole grains. 


Eating locally

Minneapolis Public Schools has transformed its meal programs under leader Bertrand Weber. Weber left a career in the hospitality industry to take the helm of the Minneapolis school nutrition program, and staff says he was dismayed at what he saw on his child’s school lunch tray. He is credited with making significant positive changes to Minneapolis’ program through its True Foods initiative.

Minneapolis serves more than 43,000 meals each day. True Foods are promoted as foods that taste good, without high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors or preservatives. Minneapolis has installed 67 “market cart” salad bars over the past five years, serves free breakfasts to all students, and has a farm-to-table focus. The latter initiative involves a locally sourced lunch on the first Thursday of every month. Minneapolis also works with local chefs to develop recipes and does extensive taste tests. 

Minneapolis also  provides a daily fresh fruit or vegetable snack in more than 700 elementary classrooms, and provides free meals and snacks to children in after-school programs at schools and community sites.

Weber and other Minneapolis Public Schools staff don’t see the federal changes as having a major impact in what their district does to provide meals and snacks. But federal changes will continue to be watched closely. 

In June, the Minneapolis School Board adopted a new wellness policy, to bring the district into compliance with federal guidelines. Lindsay Biller, employee wellness coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools, said the policy’s strong focus on nutrition will benefit all employees, as well as students, and Julie Danziel, who leads whole child wellness in the district’s food program, said, “Everything we do makes a positive difference and the programs are inter-related."

The new wellness policy includes several requirements for food as well as employee wellness and student physical activity. One such requirement is that schools must provide unrestricted access to potable water during meal periods for students. All foods offered or sold during the school day must meet Smart Snacks standards. The policy has a focus on “thoughtful sourcing, preparation and presentation.” Another facet is that it respects religious, ethnic and cultural diversity in healthy food choices offered through the nutrition services program as well as through the curriculum.


Nationwide reaction is mixed

 The national School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors including Minnesota, has fought what it sees as overly restrictive regulations. Members have asked Congress for more flexibility. Many point to food waste as a reason to relax the rules. The sodium regulations have generated the most criticism in recent years. One concern tied to the sodium rules is that many schools purchase prepackaged foods and those are difficult to regulate.

National School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague said in a statement: “School nutrition professionals … will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”

But health and anti-children’s obesity groups said the 2012 regulations have worked and that almost all schools are able to meet those requirements. 

American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Tanya Altmann pointed out in media interviews that children get a third to half of their daily calories at school. "So, school lunch programs are critical for helping a child reach their nutrient goals throughout the day.” 

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