Select Page

Deborah Lehmann is studying economics and public policy at Brown University, where she was recently awarded a Royce Fellowship. She writes for the Brown Daily Herald, covering campus news and trends in higher education. She is also the editor of School Lunch Talk, where this post first appeared.

The current nutrition standards for school meals are in sore need of an overhaul. They haven’t been updated since 1995, and they’re not in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA tried for several years to bring the regulations up to date, but after running into problems —either technical, or political, or both — the department outsourced the task to the Institute of Medicine last year.

The IOM released its recommendations yesterday, and there’s some good news and some bad news.

Here’s the good news: If the USDA follows the IOM recommendations, school meal regulations may soon set limits on calories and sodium, require more whole grains and vegetables, and outlaw whole milk.

Here’s the bad news: the changes may increase costs for cafeterias by up to 25 percent for breakfasts, and up to 9 percent for lunches. Unless Congress increases the reimbursement rate for school meals, most cafeterias won’t have the money to meet the new guidelines.

The IOM proposed sweeping changes to the school meal nutrition standards. First, the committee recommended a food-based menu planning system that includes limits on calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium. Currently, schools have the option of using a nutrient-based system, which makes it easy to serve heavily processed, fortified food. They can meet requirements for vitamin C, for example, by serving fortified fruit snacks. Under a food-based system, nutrient targets are used in developing the standards for school meals, but they are not used in the actual menu planning. Instead, schools must simply serve items from a number of different food groups, including dark green and orange vegetables and legumes.