Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
As Congress gears up for this year’s child nutrition reauthorization, there has been a lot of discussion about the loopholes in the National School Lunch Program. For the most part, though, those discussions have focused on the laughably outdated list of “foods of minimal nutritional value” and the junk food that cafeterias sell outside of complete, reimbursable meals. Few people been paying attention to the loopholes that affect the nutritional quality of the meals themselves. Over the past few months, I’ve been accumulating a list of loopholes that allow school cafeterias to dish out less-than-healthy lunches. Here are a few of my favorites:
Percent Calories from Fat — School meals must contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. However, regulations set only a minimum for calories, not a maximum (in fact, I’ve spoken to school foodservice directors who say they were written up for serving low-calorie meals and had to put desserts back on the menu to meet the regulations). That means meeting the percent-from-fat requirements is largely a game. An entree that is high in fat or saturated fat is totally OK to serve, as long as you put it on the menu with side dishes that are high in calories but low in fat. Recently, I talked to a director who said she had been encouraged to put small bags of Skittles on the menu to meet the benchmarks. The candy boosts the calories in a meal without adding fat, so it often puts the percent of calories from fat within the acceptable threshold (it’s also fortified with vitamin C, so it helps meet that requirement as well). So while a meal with French fries or stuffed-crust pizza may be too high in fat to meet the nutrition guidelines, adding some candy (or another source of extra calories) to the tray makes the lunch into a USDA-compliant meal.