By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
New school lunch regulations could turn food into something kids wont eat
Much of the battle centers on sodium: Is it a necessary ingredient to make food taste good, or an unhealthy "cheap trick" to cover lousy ingredients? - photo by Eric Schulzke
Generations of American students who lunched on mystery meat, sloppy Joes, limp pizza, creamed turkey and the ubiquitous pigs in a blanket may now look back with queasy nostalgia on bygone days their children will never know.

Thats the good news, thanks to the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, whose regulations have been gradually phased in over the past few years. The new healthier menus are required to have much less fat and salt and much more fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains.

The bad news if critics' fears are credible is that the cost and logistics of the new rules may be too costly while also producing food that kids wont eat. Thats the fear voiced emphatically by the School Nutrition Association, whose members have to try to make the new regulations work.

A new General Accounting Office report released last week seems to buttress those fears, highlighting widespread resistance among the school chefs and nutritionists who implement the standards on the ground. Many argue they are being forced to prepare more costly lunches that kids wont eat.

They point to an earlier GAO report showing that the year the standards took effect in 2012-13, over a million students stopped buying school lunches. Most observers suspect that kids bailed because they found the new lunches unappealing. The report also found that 321 districts had dropped out of the school lunch program.

Of particular concern to critics are the sodium standards, which require staged reductions that will cut salt in lunches in half by 2022. Those sodium reductions take place even though there is no consensus within the scientific community about whether salt is as bad as we think it is.

To meet the sodium standards, the GAO reports, some school nutritionists replaced all added salt with pepper, which resulted in a strong pepper flavor for many foods." Others switched to low-sodium gravy, and removed pickles from the condiment station.

Meanwhile, one nonprofit argues for an approach that would bring fresh food into the school kitchen and help kids reconnect with quality foods they currently might rarely encounter.

Is salt really the enemy? And can you really radically change the menu while still serving cost-effective and edible food? Its the battlefield of the school lunch wars now being fought at a school near you, and already upending the traditional menu.

The cost challenge

According to the USDA, the school lunch program nationally cost $12.7 billion in 2014, with an estimate that schools will spend $1.2 billion more on lunches during the current year. Some of that additional cost was covered by Congress when it passed the new law

Seventy percent of programs surveyed are struggling financially, with many implementing staffing cuts, canceling equipment purchases, or limiting menu variety.

Cost is the biggest challenge, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. Congress, she argues, should either step up to provide more funding or carve out more flexibility for districts struggling to make ends meet.

Under the 2010 legislation and the regulations that followed, schools must now offer more expensive fresh fruit and both orange and green vegetables, as well as more expensive whole grain breads and pasta, Pratt-Heavner notes.

But while the new standards were estimated to increase the cost of each lunch by 10 cents and each breakfast by 27 cents, Congress only provided schools with an extra 6 cents for each lunch and no extra funding for breakfast. Those numbers look small but add up quickly, she said. The common practice of Congress imposing a cost without providing funding to pay for it is known as an "unfunded mandate."

Student participation in school lunch programs has also been declining, as kids explore other options. In 2012-13, the USDA reported that a million fewer children participated in school lunches compared to the previous year.

Lower demand combined with higher ingredient costs make it harder for schools to achieve economies of scale.

The beef with salt

Then there are the sodium targets. "There's a fair amount of research calling into question whether extreme sodium reductions are beneficial," said Pratt-Heavner.

She argues that before the next phase of sodium cuts take place in 2017, the federal government should take a look at how they are affecting food cost and safety, whether the new foods will be acceptable to kids, and whether they will have a dramatic negative impact on operations.

So is salt really such a serious health risk? Conventional wisdom and many top-notch scientists say yes.

"Life-long intake of a high sodium diet is probably the most important cause of hypertension," said Dr. Richard Cooper, chairman of the department of public health sciences at Loyola University of Chicago, a noted expert on hypertension, or high blood pressure.

"The best interpretation of the salt and blood pressure data is that lower is better," Cooper insists.

Cooper says there are different "tribes" of scientists working on salt. The more established group has been working on it for over 50 years, while the group he calls the "interlopers" is new to the field.

But the interlopers do have traction and powerful allies.

A 2014 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine outlines a massive salt study of 100,000 adults in 17 countries. The study found that both very low and very high salt intake was linked to higher levels of cardiovascular disease.

The sweet spot in that study was moderate salt intake. But moderate was pegged at 3-6 grams per day. That is twice the current U.S. guideline of 2.3 or 1.5 grams per day. These targets were for adults.

These provocative findings beg for a randomized, controlled outcome trial to compare reduced sodium intake with usual diet, the NEJM editors concluded. In the absence of such a trial, the results argue against reduction of dietary sodium as an isolated public health recommendation.

The study cited by NEJM, Cooper says, "is very weak on methodology and quality control."

"This field in challenging. You can't measure life-long salt intake in people, and the effect is small but cumulative," Cooper argued, but please don't fall in the trap of 'there are two sides so the truth must be in the middle.

A real food connection

Some fresh food advocates think the entire argument is spurious. Fat and salt are cheap tricks to make bad food palatable, said Gregory Silverman managing director of Wellness in the Schools.

When you serve quality fresh food, you dont need to mask its flavor, Silverman argues. He says all of the schools they work with in New York are hitting the standards, including the sodium standards.

WITS, a New York City-based school food mentoring program that now serves 75 schools and 40,000 students in New York, puts chefs in the kitchen as mentors and trainers, helping them develop systems and from-scratch healthy recipes.

"There are amazing people in school kitchens coast to coast," Silverman said. They just don't have training and technical skills and equipment they need.

WITS helps schools replace processed chicken with roasted chicken quarters, expand their salad bars and make dressings from scratch, and brings in new recipes that conform to the standards.

A big part of the WITS strategy is to help kids connect to real food by bringing the recipes they will eat in the lunchroom into the classroom to try out.

WITS chefs go into the classrooms, where students learn to make many of the new recipes that will appear in the cafeteria. Most classrooms will have fourt to six workshops over the course of a school year. One will focus on beans, and they will make vegetarian chili and humus. Another will focus on making applesauce, another on salad dressings, and so on. Each workshop introduces students to foods they will see in the cafeteria.

Were trying to re-create those connections, Silverman said.

Its counterintuitive, but Silverman's WITS partner schools easily hit the nutrition standards without using canned or frozen foods or adding staff, and they do it at the same price point as those who do.

"We have found that by cooking real food using herbs and spices, people don't need as much salt," said Silverman. We see kids grabbing salad, humus and roast chicken and loving it.