When Congress blocked new school meal nutrition rules that were under consideration by USDA, new reports said politicians were “fighting over fries” and that food industries stymied efforts to provide students with healthier lunches.
That’s not what’s happening in Billings area schools, nor in most schools across the country. Want to know what K-12 students are having for lunch?
Take a look in Billings Public Schools cafeterias and you’ll see fresh fruit and veggie bars. The high schools have “chop sticks” stations where noodles, lean meat and veggies are served in Chinese-style take-out cartons. There’s pizza, too. But this isn’t your typical pizza pie. All Billings school pizza has a yummy whole-grain crust and low-fat USDA commodity cheeses. In addition to low-sodium commodity tomato sauce, the taco pizza is piled with lean beef, lettuce, fresh tomatoes and veggie salsa. Students can add more veggies and salsa. Trumoo chocolate milk is a student favorite — delicious with calcium and protein, yet fat free with little added sugar.
Trumoo is one of many examples of how industry has worked to meet nutrition guidelines for schools with food that kids will eat, said Dayle Hayes, Billings dietitian and author. The white, whole-grain pizza crust served in Billings area schools is a ConAgra product.
Healthier commodity foods
USDA has changed the nutrient profile for 180 commodities that are now lower in fat, sugar and sodium than when most of today’s parents were in school.
Bette Hunt, who is in charge of Sodexo food services for Billings public and Catholic schools as well as Lockwood, has worked for years with local nutrition experts and food suppliers to make school meals healthier. Hunt recently hosted a meeting for local food producers to discuss how they would supply school programs. A recent statewide school food service meeting in Helena brought in suppliers to showcase healthy products for school meals.
“The overall message is that industry, government and Sodexo have really changed food,” Hayes said.
Hunt and Hayes know that students will choose foods that taste good, not necessarily foods that are nutritious.
“You don’t really want to advertise whole grains and brown rice,” Hayes said. “You want to offer good food.”
French fries and other greasy, fried potatoes haven’t been on local school menus for years. However, baked potato wedges and baked potato bars where students can help themselves to healthy toppings are featured in local cafeterias. A recent national survey found that 89 percent of U.S. schools don’t serve French fries.
With school lunches already on track to be healthier, why was there a congressional lunch debate?
The National Institute of Medicine proposed new school meal standards to USDA in January. USDA asked for public comment and within 90 days received more than 130,000 responses. Many involved an IOM proposal that four “starchy” vegetables be served no more than once a week. Those vegetables are potatoes, green peas, corn and fresh lima (butter) beans. USDA was in the process of reviewing public comment and word was circulating in nutrition circles that the “starchy vegetable limit” would be modified, according to Hayes, who worked for the National Potato Council on this issue. The American Dietetic Association and school food professionals had objected to the OIM guidelines.
“We heard USDA had conceded the starchy vegetable point and the sodium standard also was being considered,” said Virginia Mermel, who has long chaired the School Health Advisory Committee for Billings. Mermel, who holds a doctoral degree in nutrition and works from Billings, said the IOM drew up school meal guidelines without involving dietitians or food service experts. She said that the IOM’s extremely low proposed sodium limit would be appropriate for an adult who had extremely high blood pressure.
“Sodium is not a problem in school meals,” Mermel said.
“The things Congress did last week do not set back meal standards in any way,” Hayes said.
The congressional school food fight and much national media coverage of it was more smoke than fire. What parents and taxpayers should know is that local school lunches offer healthier choices than ever before — thanks to collaboration between local volunteers, schools and food suppliers.
Congress didn’t have to intervene by blocking rules that hadn’t even been adopted when it passed a partial budget bill. However, our lawmakers found it easier to stand up for starchy vegetables than to finish the national budget, which is now nearly two months past due.