I recently received an email from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution about the current Federal proposals for revised school lunch standards. This issue has great resonance for me because I have a son that within a few years will be a student at a public school. I am certainly concerned about what kind of food he will be eating at the school cafeteria. As a matter of fact, I wrote a comment to the US Department of Agriculture supporting the proposed regulations. (The website is http://www.regulations.gov . Search for school lunch and go from there to offer your comment. The due date is April 13, 2011.)
Federally supported school lunches and breakfast programs provide meals to upwards of 30 million children on any given day. The current federal standards do not tend to support fresh vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Instead, they tend to support processed foods. Under the current standards, it is pretty easy (and often cheaper) for a given school to emphasize cheap, easily processed food over fresh and healthier fruits, vegetables, and grains. Numerous schools have tried to offer healthier options, but these efforts have often occurred without significant regulatory support. Institutions often are unwilling to get too far out in front of the regulations.
Under the new standards, the schools will be required to offer fresh fruits and vegetables. The fruit cannot be buried in 20% fruit juice—it either must be fresh, dried, canned, etc. Fruit juice must be 100% fruit juice and not watered or sugared down. In any given week, the school must include offerings for leafy greens, orange vegetables like squash and carrots, legumes such as black beans, as well as starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn. By 2014, only whole grains will be offered, replacing the classic processed white bread.
Some leading edge districts have established relationships with local farmers to help increase their healthier offerings. I think that these programs will get more attention now that schools will be required to buy a broader mix of foods. Hopefully, more school food buyers will put two and two together–mandated fruit, vegetable, and grain offerings on the one hand and the presence of local farms producing these on the other. If they do, then many mutually productive partnerships are possible with great benefits to both sides.
If this does happen, then the USDA’s guidelines could have impacts well beyond the school—and my son’s lunch.