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American Heart Association, RDs Weigh In on New Proposed Rule
for School Meal Standards

The American Heart Association, the world’s leading voluntary organization focused on heart and brain health, issued the following statement in response to USDA’s proposed rule “Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (NSLP/SBP)”:

“We are extremely disappointed that the USDA is once again rolling back nutrition standards in our schools. First, the Trump Administration weakened requirements for sodium and whole grains, and now these proposed changes would allow schools to serve fewer fruits and grains, a smaller variety of vegetables, and less healthy entrées that aren’t part of a balanced meal. These changes are unnecessary and put children’s health at risk.

“Since school nutrition standards were updated in 2012, students have been eating healthier foods at schools. More than 99% of participating schools meet the current standards and data from the USDA show that the healthiest meals have the highest participation rates. Instead of building on this success, the proposed rule would put less healthy food on children’s plates.

“We adamantly oppose this rule and are particularly concerned about the following aspects of this proposal:

Reducing the amount of fruit required at breakfast for meals served outside the cafeteria. Schools could now provide as little as half a cup of fruit, a 50% reduction from current requirements.

Removing the requirement that schools serve grains at breakfast. Schools could now meet the standards by serving meat and no grain product.

Changing the vegetable subgroup requirements so schools are no longer required to serve as many red and orange vegetables and legumes. Instead, schools could serve more potatoes and other starchy, often fried, vegetables.

Allowing entrées currently served as part of the weekly reimbursable meal program to be served on their own nearly every day of the week, eliminating the requirement that these items meet the strong à la carte standards for individual food items. While entrées and side dishes sold as part of the reimbursable meal are required to meet the school meal nutrition standards, these standards are averaged across the weekly menu. This gives schools the flexibility to occasionally serve a food that does not meet nutrition standards on its own but is balanced by healthier sides. If these foods are allowed to be sold more frequently in à la carte, there is no requirement that children select a balanced meal. Children could, for example, purchase three slices of pizza in the à la carte line instead of purchasing a nutritionally balanced, reimbursable lunch that contains a slice of pizza, salad, and fruit.

“While the USDA claims these changes are necessary to mitigate food waste, studies show that food waste has either remained the same or decreased since the updated school nutrition standards. There are several other effective strategies to reduce food waste in schools, such as giving students more time to eat, putting recess before lunch, marketing healthy foods to kids, and involving students in meal planning, none of which jeopardizes the health of our children.

“Healthy school meals help combat childhood obesity and poor cardiovascular health, but they also help establish a foundation for a lifetime of healthy behaviors. Healthy school foods also help children perform better in school and set them up for success. This proposed rule would be detrimental to the long-term health of our children and erase years of progress in child nutrition in our country.

“It is shocking that the USDA has decided to once again put the health of our children at risk. We will be carefully reviewing this proposal and providing comments.”

Most RDs contacted by Today’s Dietitian echo the sentiments of the American Heart Association.

Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, says, “I believe that many schools had gotten used to the requirement for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, so to reverse a healthier rule that schools had largely grown accustomed to doesn’t make sense to me. In addition, we know these are all healthful directions for children’s diets. Kids are falling short of these key areas.”

Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND, nutrition professor at Boston University, author of Nutrition & You, and host of the hit nutrition, health, and wellness podcast SpotOn!, says, “Downsizing the [number of] healthful foods in the school lunch program is ridiculous based on the research. A study in the journal Childhood Obesity shows that 70% of elementary school leaders (mostly foodservice directors and principals) nationwide reported that students generally like the healthier school lunches, which include meals with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which can reduce food waste, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.”

KC Wright, MS, RDN, LD, a researcher at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and founder of a nutrition communications practice, says the USDA’s proposed rule “will undo and reverse public health efforts to reduce diet-related disease risk and obesity in our children that have been effective in improving kids’ health. Under the current rules, the nutrition quality of meals has been improved, according to HealthyEatingResearch.org.”

However, Deborah Beauvais, RDN, SNS, school nutrition director at Gates Chili, East Rochester, and East Irondequoit Schools in Rochester, New York, believes that the USDA’s proposed changes will be a positive. “USDA’s current and proposed flexibilities for school menu planning preserve strong nutrition standards, ensuring students will be offered a wide variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables with school meals, including weekly offerings of dark leafy greens, red and orange vegetables, and legumes,” she says. “Under these flexibilities, school meals meet Target 1 sodium reductions and caps on calories and saturated fat, which ensure school meals do not contribute to obesity.

“As a school nutrition operator, I do not plan to go backwards on any of the things we have been doing, as they are going well for the kids and our program. I am placing ‘garden bars’ in all my schools so that children can get the exposure to a wide variety of vegetables. These new flexibilities will allow me to take advantage of local harvests. Why should a school turn down zucchini, wax beans, or beets because they are an ‘other vegetable’ and they need to fill up other categories first? Moreover, the vegetable subgroups are incredibly complicated (a dry black-eyed pea is a legume, but a fresh black-eyed pea is a starch).

“In addition,” Beauvais continues, “there is much needed flexibility for à la carte offerings. This will help relieve unnecessary menu planning inconsistencies and ensure students can choose from a variety of healthful options in the cafeteria. Entrées that already meet nutrition standards for school meals would be allowed for à la carte purchase on the day the entrée is offered as part of the school meal and for the next two school days. Current rules only permit à la carte sale the day of meal service and one day after.”

Regarding the notion that the proposed changes to the NSLP and SBP will reduce food waste, Blake says studies show there’s “less food waste with the new healthful lunch standards than the older standards. Children like produce that tastes good. To reduce food waste, you need to prepare healthful foods in an appetizing way that appeal to kids.”

The issue of food waste “is very complex,” Palmer says. “We know that a lot of food is wasted when fruits, veggies, and whole grains are required to be served in schools. However, we also know that children increase their intake of healthful foods with repeated exposure. It may be an issue that needs more attention—how to provide healthier foods that will actually be consumed, not thrown away.”

According to Wright, “I don't believe that the proposed changes will make a significant impact on food waste. Offering healthful food to kids that tastes good will not necessarily be wasted. Here’s where education all around will help. Most food waste is the product of individual consumers and households.”

— Source: American Heart Association, Today's Dietitian staff report