E-News Exclusive

Dietitians Respond to the Delayed School Lunch Standards

By Lindsey Getz

Many dietitians probably already have heard that the Trump administration has made some changes to the federal nutrition standards that will affect school children across the country. It was announced in May that the requirement to further lower the amount of sodium in meals will be delayed. In addition, schools will be permitted to serve flavored 1% milk instead of only fat-free flavored milk and will no longer be required to serve only 100% whole grain­-rich foods. Still, at least one-half of the grains served in schools must be whole grains.

Agriculture Secretary George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue, DVM, has said these changes are in response to hearing from schools that desire more flexibility in their lunch menus. Some schools have said that students wind up throwing their healthful lunch items in the trash.

Samara Abbott, MSEd, RD, LDN, of G&G Nutrition Co, in Charlotte, North Carolina, worked in school nutrition from 2008–2014 and has firsthand experience of the growing pains associated with becoming compliant with new regulations. While she was in support of updating the “outdated regulations,” she says that the timeline was challenging. And since school nutrition programs support themselves financially—ie, they rely on the sales of meals to pay for their operations—she says some of the initial changes were financially unrealistic.

“I agreed with the initial phases of legislation that required one-half of grains served to students to be whole grain rich,” Abbott says. “However, I found it to be unrealistic and costly to expect every single grain item to be whole grain rich. For example, we served crackers with our chef salads. Whole wheat crackers were triple the cost of white crackers, and most students threw them in the trash because they did not like them.”

Though the crackers remained unpopular, Abbott says they had to serve them as a grain component to meet the reimbursable meal requirements.

“It wasted money and food,” Abbott says. “This is a side to school nutrition that most people do not see. There are simply some items that students prefer when they aren’t whole grain. I think that’s OK as long as programs continue to offer healthful, balanced meals and other whole grain options.”

Abbott, like others, are indifferent about the milk changes. The difference between 1% and skim is nominal. And for dietitians including Donna S. Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, FAND, director of the school nutrition program for the Burke County Board of Education in Waynesboro, Georgia, there’s a strong belief that nutrition education needs to improve at home before it will be readily adopted at school. Further decreasing sodium in school meals is going to be challenging without changes at home, she says.

“I’m supportive of staying at Level 1 for sodium, because I don't feel like we have the evidence-based data to support going to Level 2 sodium levels,” Martin says. “I also think it would be a hardship to go to Level 2 because students are still eating a higher sodium diet at home. We need to do a lot of education with parents to get them to decrease the sodium in their child’s diet so they will be more accepting of the lower sodium meals at school.”

Martin and Abbott seem to agree that schools need more time to implement healthful changes and don’t find the Trump administration’s delays to be a big setback to where things stand. In fact, Martin says she doesn’t believe most districts will change what they’re doing because they have made so much progress in meeting the standards, and it would be confusing to go backwards. She said they won’t make any changes to their current program at Burke County.

Still, some dietitians remain concerned about the delays of the nutrition standards. Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, CDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time, says that the healthful school nutrition changes the Obama administration made were “steps in the right direction” toward getting kids to eat healthier. She sees these current delays as potential steps backwards.

“School lunches can represent up to one-half of what a child might eat during the day,” Taub-Dix says. “As a mom of three children, I always saw school as part of the team involved in my children’s lives. You can do everything right at home in terms of shopping healthfully and serving healthful meals, but you want to see that the same message is being carried through at school.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.