What’s going on with the school breakfast and lunch program?

For the first time in more than 15 years, there have been major changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National School Lunch and Breakfast Program standards. This has sparked a lot of discussion about the food kids eat at school and whether the new standards are providing adequate amounts of protein and calories.

Below is a Q&A with Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., RD, and Executive Director of Human Nutrition Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a Contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

What are the new school breakfast and lunch guidelines?

In January 2012, the USDA updated its meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. The new requirements change standards for the first time in more than 15 years. The lunch standards go into effect this (2012-2013) school year and the breakfast standards will be phased in beginning next (2013-2014) school year.

Is meat, such as beef, still allowed in the school lunch program?

Yes. The amount of meat/meat alternate required as part of the new school lunch plans are almost identical to previous requirements, but there are now maximum limits that did not exist until this school year. Under the previous guidelines, schools were required to provide at least 1.5-2 oz. equivalent of meat/meat alternate daily (or 7.5-10 oz. equivalent meat/meat alternate weekly). The new guidelines are more specific to age/grade with a range of 10-12 oz. equivalent meat/meat alternate weekly for grades 9-12,  9-10 oz. for grades 6-8 and 8-10 oz. for grades K-5.

Depending on which approach schools previously followed in the 2011-2012 school year; kids may be offered more or less meat/meat alternate under the new meal plan guidelines than what they were getting before.

Why does it seem that kids aren’t getting as much food, especially protein, as they were before these guidelines went into effect?

It all depends on the school. Some schools were previously serving more than what the new maximum limits allow. Depending on the individual school district or even the individual school and what they’ve offered in the past, portion sizes or the types of food being served may or may not have changed under these new guidelines. There is a lot of variation and it really depends on the individual school and area. Under the new guidelines, all schools follow a “one-size-fits-all” or single food-based menu planning approach. These are based on the average nutrition needs for Americans. The guidelines outline specific calorie ranges and amounts of foods each age/grade group receives.

Is meat, such as beef, still allowed in the school breakfast program?

Yes. Meat/meat alternates are allowed, but not required, as part of the new school breakfast guidelines. Schools can choose to substitute a 1 oz. equivalent of meat/meat alternate for 1 oz. of grains after the minimum daily grains requirement of 1 oz. is met. These changes will go into effect in the 2013-2014 school year.

Do certain kids need more protein?

Yes. These new guidelines are based on nutrition needs for the average student. According to the USDA MyPlate recommendations for protein foods, the daily recommendation is 5 oz. equivalents for girls aged 9-18 and boys aged 9-13 and 6.5 oz. equivalents for boys aged 14-18. However, according to USDA these daily recommendations “are appropriate for individuals who get less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity, beyond normal daily activities. Those who are more physically active may be able to consume more while staying within calorie needs.” So more active children may need more protein.

One 3 oz. serving of lean beef provides half of the protein we need every day to meet the basic protein requirements called for by the dietary guidelines. So, if your child is only getting 1-2 oz. of protein foods daily at school, make sure you’re serving protein at every meal when your child is home by serving protein-rich snacks and lean beef at dinner.

Are kids getting enough to eat under these new guidelines?

The new guidelines provide the basic nutritional needs for the average American student. Of course, I’m sure we’d all say our children are anything but average. Similarly, not all Americans have the same nutritional needs. We’ve heard from some kids that they are still hungry after lunch. This could be the result of smaller portion sizes (depending on what their school previously served) but could also simply be because kids are not eating the food options being provided. Schools can continue to serve nutrient- and protein-rich foods, like lean beef and low/non-fat dairy products that are enjoyable and familiar, in order to help kids meet these new guidelines and keep them satisfied throughout the day. Kids may also have the option to purchase a second entrée or meal if they feel they need more to make it through the day.

What can I do if my kids are still hungry after eating breakfast or lunch at school?

If kids, especially those who might be gone from home for a majority of the day or participate in sports after school, are hungry after eating their lunch, then it might be a good idea to pack a protein-rich snack or pack lunches. Talk to your local school and make sure they understand the importance of keeping nutrient-rich foods, like lean beef, on the menu. Some additional suggestions for protein-rich lunches/snacks include:

  • Roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • Ground beef (fully cooked) with whole wheat tortilla
  • Asparagus roll-up with beef
  • Cheese sticks
  • Yogurt

Is there anything else that I can do if I’m confused about the guidelines or have concerns?

USDA has asked for stakeholder feedback about the guidelines and has also created a website, www.usda.gov/healthierschoolday. If you have questions, or concerns, ideas or success stories of ways you’ve helped make delicious and nutritious meals following these new standards, email Healthierschoolday@fns.usda.gov.  

What’s an example of a dish, using beef, that meets these new school guidelines?

One of the recipes that USDA actually suggests on their website is whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce (using 80/20 ground beef) and a whole wheat roll with margarine, green beans, broccoli and cauliflower with low-fat ranch dip, kiwi and low-fat milk. The Kansas State Department of Education has also developed a 6-week lunch menu calendar and I love their Taco Salad using ground beef (80/20 ground beef) with refried beans and whole grain corn tortilla chips and some fruits and vegetables. Check out these recipes, and others, at http://healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/best-practices.


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