Back to School: The ABC’s of Changes to School Meals

By: Richard Hill
Sep 7, 2017 3:15 PM ET
Richard Hill, Vice President, Marketing - Sodexo

Back to School: The ABC’s of Changes to School Meals

With over 30 million students eating at least one meal at school each day, schools not only offer an opportunity for children to enjoy nourishing food but also a chance to learn healthy eating habits and important social skills.  Meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are required to be healthy and nutritious, and they got even healthier in 2012 when new guidelines were implemented as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, requiring cafeterias limit calories, sodium and unhealthy fats, and offer more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in every meal.

While most schools have been successful in implementing these standards, some have experienced challenges in meeting the sodium, whole grain-rich and milk requirements. To address these concerns, the Secretary of Agriculture issued an interim ruling in May that provides schools with more flexibility in meal planning for the upcoming school year, while continuing to serve nutritious meals that have kid appeal. Here’s a closer look at how the ruling changes affect school meals.

Extends the timeline for sodium reduction. The standards require schools to gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals over time, with the goal of achieving a final sodium reduction target by 2022.  The new ruling gives schools additional time to reduce the amount of sodium in meals, allowing schools to maintain the Target 1 sodium limits for the next four years rather than requiring them to meet the more stringent Target 2 levels beginning this school year.

Why is limiting sodium in school meals important?  A higher sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that ninety percent of children in the U.S. eat too much sodium, and according to the American Heart Association, about 1 in 6 children between the ages of 8 to 17 years has high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and adult hypertension.

Provides additional options to serving whole grains. The current nutrition standards require that all grains offered with school meals be whole grain-rich (at least 51 percent whole grain).  Based on reports of limited options in the whole-wheat varieties and some whole-grain foods being less accepted by students, the new ruling gives States the power to grant exemptions for the next two years to schools experiencing difficulty serving whole grain-rich products, for any type of grains on the menu.

Why include more whole grains in school meals? Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, making whole-grain foods—like oatmeal, some breakfast cereals, corn tortillas, whole-grain breads and whole-wheat pasta—an essential part of a nutritious diet for kids. And as part of a healthy diet, whole grains can help with diabetes and weight management as well as heart health. Surprisingly, less than 5 percent of children and teens get the minimum three daily servings of whole grains.

Offers more milk choices. In addition to every school meal offering 1 percent, fat-free, or fat-free flavored milk, schools will be given the discretion to serve 1 percent flavored milk for students selecting milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.

Why is milk a vital component of school meals? Compared to other beverages, milk contributes the most vitamins and minerals to children’s diets, and is the leading source of nine essential nutrients, including protein, calcium and vitamin D. Encouraging low-fat and fat-free milk—both unflavored and flavored—at school and at home can help children meet their nutrient needs within calorie and fat recommendations. While plain milk is more commonly consumed, studies show that school-aged children who drink flavored milk tend to have higher total milk and nutrient intakes, but not higher body mass indices (BMI) or added sugar intakes.

School lunch and breakfast programs are critical to helping our children achieve their daily nutrient goals. They are also play a vital role in preparing students for engaged learning in the classroom. At Sodexo, we are committed to helping students achieve improved and sustained health and wellbeing, and will continue our efforts to deliver healthier school meals that meet or exceed nutrition standards, including meals that are lower in sodium and incorporate more whole grains. Together, we can help students learn how healthier ingredients can create delicious and nutritious meals.