Will Ketchup Again Count as a Vegetable? USDA Delays School Lunch Rules

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week announced changes to school lunch rules, allowing schools for the time being to serve low-fat flavoured milk (chocolate milk), and relaxing both sodium and whole grains requirements.

Full compliance for some provisions is pushed back to the end of the 2018-19 school year, and for others, until 2021.

These tweaks don’t at present threaten the overall 2011 framework of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Health experts quoted in a NBC News report on the rule change, including American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown,  challenged the USDA’s rationales for the changes: that kids are throwing food away, and some schools having a tough time complying with the standards:

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s participating schools have complied with updated school meal standards. Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes,” Brown said in a statement.

“Their meals have less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and they eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. Why would the USDA want to roll back the current standards and reverse this excellent progress?”

Now– I should point out, for the record, my headline notwithstanding– this is a far cry from when the Reagan USDA sought to classify ketchup as a vegetable (and which, to be fair, the agency backed away from, as discussed here). Lest you think I’m being unduly hysterical in mentioning that issue, I’ll point out that tomato reclassification has not fully been banished, with the Atlantic reporting as recently as 2011 that a Senate bill sought to reclassify tomato paste used in pizza as a vegetable. So, we most certainly need to keep a watch on the processed tomato products front. But I digress.

Problems with School Lunch Programs Are Longstanding

In a cross-post I posted from AlterNet earlier this year,
Another Privatization Fail: 5 Things You Don’t Know About School Lunches (but Probably Should), Cynthia Lopez highlighted problems with the current school lunch program– which  certainly predate the Trump administration.  Indeed, while Proust recalled those famous madeleines, the school lunch memories of many Americans are not nearly so pleasant.

The first and foremost problem I well remember– and which Lopez noted– is basic palatability:

On the surface, the Hunger-Free Kids Act makes a lot of sense. It requires school meals to be lower in fat, lower in calories and lower in sodium, as well as contain more lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. The hallmarks of a well-balanced diet, right? Unfortunately, in order to continue to meet student expectations, school lunch programs are often serving reengineered versions of the foods students were accustomed to (think: whole-grain doughnuts, cheesesteak sandwich served on whole-grain bread with cheese low in both fat and salt, and some form of lean meat that some say is unidentifiable to many students). It’s fair to say that these reinvented foods aren’t meeting the bar in students’ eyes.

It seems obvious to me that what’s needed is something more far-reaching than asking Big Food to produce rejigged versions of unhealthy stalwarts. The goal should instead be to aim for something similar to what Jamie Oliver is attempting to do in the UK, with Jamie’s Food Revolution.

Unwanted Food Ends Up as Waste

My aim in this short post is not so ambitious and far-sighted, and instead is to focus on another issue: waste.

Over to  Lopez again:

It also turns out there’s a lot of waste. The [Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act] requires that students participating in school lunch programs have certain items on their trays before exiting the lunch line—meaning many fruits and vegetables are dumped into the trash, untouched.

As I’ve mentioned before, in my intro to the Lopez piece cited above, my first encounter with school lunch waste was in 1970 or 1971, when I led an insurrection among the fourth grade girls at the Allamuchy Elementary School. Our goal– which we achieved– was to be allowed to serve as tray scrapers, a task previously reserved to the boys. For some reason, students weren’t allowed to dump their own waste into the trash, but instead, handed their trays to a tray scraper, who did so for them.

Don’t know why this seemed to be such a burning feminist issue. Yet it bothered me that anything– even a menial task such as kitchen clean-up– was reserved to boys only.

And so from my experience as a tray scraper, I can well recall what happens to food that children don’t like: it gets trashed. During my Allamuchy days, the single most loathed food we were served was canned prunes. No one ate those. All got binned.

So, I’m thinking, the USDA could have a point here.

Not, the realist in me realizes that the far more likely motivation for the policy delay is pressure from food producers who wish to continue to push unhealthy food to school children, rather than produce healthier options. And, I also foresee, that USDA’s seemingly modest delay may actually only be a first step, toward a further rollback or reconsideration of the current standards.

Allow me to quote from Lopez again:

For every company offering healthy meal options for schools, there are several making bank by marketing unhealthy options. And ultimately, if student participation isn’t there, the program—no matter how healthy it may be—won’t have the desired impact.

With that in mind, it’s certainly necessary to keep a close watch on what the USDA does, with respect not only to this rule delay, but also to any future school lunch proposals.

Food Waste: Share and Donate Tables

More immediately and independently, food waste is no doubt as big a problem now as it was when I attended elementary school in Allamuchy. And perhaps it’s even more pressing, given the state of landfills, and the role waste management practices play in promoting global warming.

With that in mind, I noticed a report on a program some Florida schools have recently adopted, that not only reduces food waste, yet also helps feed the hungry. As reported in AJC.com in Elementary school ‘share tables’ keep unwanted lunch food out of trash:

As 9-year-old Sabrina Agosto left her school’s lunch line, she dropped her carton of milk on the cafeteria’s “share and donation” table and then snagged an extra yogurt.

“I don’t like milk,” explained the fourth grader at Aloma Elementary School in Orange County. “I really like them,” she said of her twin containers of strawberry yogurt.

Lunchtime at Aloma means a steady stream of youngsters putting items they don’t want on the table and picking up extras of things they do like. On a recent afternoon, containers of milk and yogurt, wrapped cheese sticks, and packages of crackers, orange slices, and coleslaw all came to and then left the table.

Whatever isn’t picked up by students is donated to a nearby church that gives the food to the homeless.

The 2-year-old effort aims to eliminate food waste and to provide extra nutrition both to hungrier kids in the cafeteria and to needy residents in the community.

Aloma is one of about 20 public elementary schools in Orange that have started a so-called share table. Some, like Aloma, donate their excess to charities and others send the food — which cannot, by law, be reused in the lunch program — home with students whose families struggle to make ends meet.

The article explains that the USDA endorsed the share tables idea in 2016 as an “innovative strategy.” Currently, students passing through the lunch line are required to take and place certain items on their tray– including a fruit or vegetable. Yet requiring a student to take the item doesn’t  necessarily lead to it being eaten.

Over to AJC.com again:

Martha Albright, Aloma’s cafeteria manager, said the share table has cut down on waste and mess in the lunch room because students don’t play with and then throw out food they don’t want to eat.

“The custodians love it,” she said.

Setting up share and donate tables in all schools wouldn’t alone save the planet. But it’s a step that could be taken more or less immediately, at the local level, would cost little, and would redirect food from school trash cans to the hungry in a community. And maybe it, would spark changes in the way at least some kids think about wasting food.

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  1. Synoia

    I share you love of prunes. I would add (canned) plums.

    There was no waste of food at my school. There were also no choices for each meal, and possibly because we had a rigorous exercise program, one hour per day, very few were obese.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    Thanks for this. This sounds like a very good idea – forwarding it along to some of our local officials.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Glad to hear that– seems to be a simple thing to do, one that would bring some benefits.

  3. beth

    The last time I was in a school cafeteria the chocolate beverage was labeled a drink,not milk, and is very highly sweetened. During a meal most people have dessert last since even fruit doesn’t taste as sweet after eating another food that has more sugar. In that cafeteria kids threw out sweetened yogurt and fruit.

    I strongly disagree with the new changes.

  4. Scott

    When I was in school, we always had to get milk, which I didn’t (and still don’t) drink. I would always through it out. Even as a ten year old, I thought it was ridiculous that over a quarter of the price of the school lunch went to buy milk that I would then throw away. I was even more amazed at how little money was left for the rest of the meal. Allowing children to pick something to drink other than milk, like say water or orange juice would have been very popular.

    I also remember a video from the American Dairy Association saying that children should drink milk because the only other sources of calcium were spinach and sardines and who would want to eat those. Yes, my school showed a video in a nutrition class that discouraged kids from eating vegetables.

    1. HotFlash

      And there are allergies. A dear friend was considered a ‘sickly child’, suffering headaches, tummy upsets, and chronic diarrhea until he went ‘away’ to college and ate only ‘junk food’ — mainly MacDonald burgers and Pepsi. His symptoms would return when he went home for weekends. Eventually his milk allergy was diagnosed. He says his mom still figures he’s just making it up, since ‘everyone knows’ that milk is healthy!

  5. David

    It should be noted that the USDA’s hands are tied regarding delayed implementation of these requirements. From the final ruling (linked in the article),

    Through successive legislative action, Congress directed the Secretary to allow State agencies that administer the NSLP and the SBP to grant individual exemptions from the regulatory whole grain-rich requirement in those programs, and delay compliance with Sodium Target 2…In addition, … the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 … provided flexibilities related to flavored milk, whole grains, and sodium for SY 2017-2018…

    The 2017 Appropriations Act provides authority for exemptions for the whole grain-rich requirement through the end of SY 2017-2018, keeps Sodium Target 1 in place through the end of SY 2017-2018, and requires the Secretary to grant State agencies that administer the NSLP and SBP discretion to allow school food authorities (SFAs) … to serve flavored, low-fat milk as part of a reimbursable meal … through the end of SY 2017-2018.

    Also, it appears as though State agencies can decide not to delay implementation of the stricter requirements.

    Good article. Thanks!

  6. Arizona Slim

    Two words: school gardens. If every school had one, kids would get to eat what they have grown. Do a search on Manzo Elementary and learn how well this idea is working in Tucson.

  7. meeps

    School food programs can address a myriad of social, economic, and health problems. Where these are creative enough, mitigating the power of the junk food and dairy industries to dictate terms could be icing on the cake.

    The K-12 public “option” school my son attended didn’t come around to planting a cafeteria garden until the year he graduated, but there was a food program to connect the students with their community. Kids volunteered mornings (really, they did!) for MUNCHIE, where they prepared, served, and cleaned-up after breakfast. Even without a working garden to close that loop, students appreciated having a hand in their own affairs. Tapping neighborhood gardens as supply lines would have been another way for the cafeteria program to meet its demand while strengthening local resiliency.

    Jamie Oliver found that many kids don’t even know what food is, let alone where to source it or how to prepare it to be nourishing and tasty. That’s a massive dereliction of duty on the part of adults everywhere, no? Big Foods’ product placement in schools is not likely to change that, let alone interesting kids to eat anything not created in a lab. The potential for improvement is there when schools commit to their raison d’être.

    1. HotFlash

      Jamie Oliver found that many kids don’t even know what food is, let alone where to source it

      Yes indeed! I was in a health food store once and was telling the clerk about a story I had read about school kids not knowing, for instance, where potatoes come from. She said hesitatingly to me, “They grow underground, don’t they?”

      Please don’t let them (family blog) up YouTube, it is an excellent source of gardening info.

      1. Vatch

        Well, the potato tubers are the part that we eat, and those grow about 10 to 15 centimeters below the surface of the soil. :-)

  8. HotFlash

    a Senate bill sought to reclassify tomato paste used in pizza as a vegetable

    Ooooh, not sure to be too hard on this. Tomato paste is (should be, anyway) just concentrated tomatoes, sometimes even sun-dried.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      It’s not the classification per se that’s the problem. Call tomato paste whatever you want. Yet if there’s a requirement for a minimum serving of vegetables and fruit, I think a serving of tomato paste on pizza (or ketchup, for that matter) shouldn’t suffice.

  9. The Rev Kev

    This is all putting me in mind of that documentary “Supersize Me” where that guy ate only McDonalds for a whole month and nearly wrecked his health. I am thinking specifically of the part where he looked at the question of school lunches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7f6hAwf9io) and what really struck me was that all the junk food was light brown in colour and I mean nearly all of it. I began to even wonder if what would happen if you decided to eat any food so long as it was not light brown in colour for a coupla months. You think that the Pentagon would be kicking up a stink as feeding kids this crap would restrict more the number of possible recruits down the track.

  10. anonymous

    School lunch politics is comprised of parents and liberals projecting their wishes and tastes on others, as well as companies and farmers fighting over millions of dollars in food service contracts. Do the kids ever get asked what they like?

    Sheet-pan pizzas, spaghetti & lasagna, grilled cheese sandwiches, fries, chocolate milk (the only things I found edible back in my day) will probably be your answer.

    As I’ve gotten older, my diet and tastes has changed more heavily to a “healthier” diet with more vegetables. I believe your body will tell you what it needs.

    Also, consider groups like the Inuit – who evolved for thousands of years living off high fat/protein diets – having their children being force-fed USDA-mandated Iowa corn. National policies can’t blanket-cover everyone

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