USDA relaxing new school lunch standards

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack revealed yesterday that schools will be given greater “flexibility” to meet the new school lunch standards, in particular caloric limits designed to combat childhood obesity.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set the stage for new school lunch nutrition rules. The goal was for the USDA to “make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by  improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children.” This page on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service site links to more details on the law and administrative rules.

Some members of Congress, including Steve King of Iowa, have criticized the new USDA rules, especially guidelines on how many calories a school lunch can contain. At the end of this post I’ve enclosed several press releases from King this year about what he calls food rationing and “putting every kid on a diet” just because some children are overweight.

Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack last month, complaining about some of the school lunch requirements. Colleagues from both parties signed the letter, which you can view here. Jerry Hagstrom reported on Vilsack’s response at the Obama Foodorama blog yesterday.

“We always anticipated that some modifications and other allowances would be required for changes of this size and scope,” Vilsack wrote to Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who sent a letter to the Secretary complaining that the guidelines are too strict.

“USDA has asked for, and states and schools have provided us with, valuable feedback,” Vilsack said. “As a result, you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

“For example, the top operational challenge that states and schools have reported is in serving meals that fit within the weekly minimum and maximum serving ranges for the grains and meat/meat alternate portions of the standards. To help schools make a successful transition to the new requirements, we have provided additional flexibility in meeting the requirements for these components. If a school is meeting just the minimum serving requirements for these two food groups, they will be considered in compliance with that portion of the standards, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximum.”

Vilsack added, “This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.

Translation: for now, the USDA will not enforce the caloric limits on school lunches. Hagstrom uploaded the full letter from Vilsack to Hoeven here (pdf). Vilsack did not clarify when the USDA will expect all schools to be in compliance. He noted that other options are available to meet the needs of “very active students” (such as those involved in team sports).

Parents, individual students and/or sports teams can supplement the taxpayer- subsidized meals with items provided from home or other sources. And students are always permitted to purchase as much additional food a la carte as they want. Schools can also make larger portions of fruits and vegetables (or even milk) available at lunch and structure afterschool snack and supper programs to provide additional foods for those who need them. Many schools have previously found success with parent or school-run booster clubs providing afterschool snacks and may opt to continue or even expand this practice.

Vilsack defended the importance of changing school lunch guidelines to address the obesity epidemic:

The HHFKA [Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act] and new standards are essential to ensure young people get the nourishment they need to support their academic performance and overall well-being. Additionally, these standards are just one part of a comprehensive effort taking place across the Federal government to address childhood obesity-a national epidemic with significant health and economic consequences for our country. Nearly one in three children are at increased risk for preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease due to being overweight or obese. The costs for treating these preventable diseases have been estimated at roughly $190 billion per year. If left unaddressed, health experts tell us that our current generation of children may well have a shorter lifespan than their parents. These are not mere statistics; they are real people that we know and see every day.

To be sure, childhood obesity cannot be addressed by changes to school meals alone. The primary responsibility for instilling healthy eating habits in America’s kids will always lie with parents,communities,andchildrenthemselves. But when spending taxpayer dollars on school meals, we have a responsibility to ensure we are supporting those efforts. And we know that these meals are an important part of the solution, not just because they reach so many children every school day, but also because we know they can work. In fact, recent research by the esteemed Cochrane Collaboration has shown that school-based nutrition reforms- including improvements to school food–can help reduce levels of obesity.

As directed by Congress under the HHFKA, USDA relied on the recommendations of experts like the Institute of Medicine–a gold standard for scientific analysis–as the basis for our standards. The result was updated, science-based standards, in which the portions of school meals are “right-sized” to reflect the age and dietary needs of the students served and the appropriate balance between food groups.

These new school meals offer twice as many fruits and vegetables as the previous ones, and servings of whole grains have been increased substantially. They are designed to ensure that children have the energy they need to learn in class and be physically active, while reducing their risk for serious chronic diseases.

Earlier this year, King introduced the “No Hungry Kids Act” to counter the USDA rules on school lunches. Even if the Republican-controlled House approves that bill next year, I assume it would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. Senator Tom Harkin has strongly supported efforts to improve school lunch nutrition, including the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Excerpts from King’s op-ed column in the Des Moines Register on September 10:

This back-to-school season, children and teenagers in Iowa and across the country faced a rude awakening in the cafeteria. When lunch time rolled around, their portions were dramatically smaller than the year before. That’s because school administrators are scrambling to comply with new federal standards that significantly trim the diet being served from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The new “calorie maximums” are broken down in three categories: grades K-5, grades 6-8 and grades 9-12. For a student in the sixth grade, last year the federal government recommended a lunch of a minimum 785 calories. This year, that same sixth-grade student will be fed a maximum of 700 calories.

I can still remember the pains of that sixth grade growth spurt and can only imagine such a scant diet. This unprecedented move of adding a maximum calorie intake is a prime example of the perils of liberal ideology.

Worse yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote these new rules much too broadly. Should we really feed a fifth-grader the same 550-calorie minimum ration as a kindergartner?

In fact, a fifth-grader weighs, on average, nearly double the weight of a typical kindergartner. For high school rations, the maximum is 850 calories per meal and three meals per day.

If I were on this diet I would lose a pound every eight days and I’m past my growth spurt. Kids are of varying sizes, activity levels and metabolism rates. How can we expect each child to flourish and grow on subsistence diets? This all because some are overweight.

Reduced carbohydrates and meat portions are leaving children so hungry that by the end of the day, parents meet their children at school with snacks just to get them home or to sports. Moms and dads around Iowa are frustrated with the “one size fits all” program that leaves their kids starving at the end of the day. These kids are simply not getting enough to eat, and they are expected to function throughout a school day and participate in sports and extracurricular activities on empty stomachs. Healthy, active kids need all the nutritious food they want.

Statement from King’s office, September 14 (emphasis in original):

King Introduces “No Hungry Kids Act”

Washington, DC- Congressman Steve King (R-IA) released the following statement today after introducing the “No Hungry Kids Act” with original co-sponsor Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). The bill was introduced in response to recently released school lunch standards from United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) that have left children around the nation hungry during their school day due to extreme calorie rationing. The “No Hungry Kids Act” repeals the USDA rule that created the new standards, prohibits the USDA’s upper caloric limits, and will protect rights of parents to send their children to school with the foods of their choice.

“For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches,” said King. “The goal of the school lunch program was- and is- to insure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn. The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s “Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,” was interpreted by Secretary Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parent’s know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want.”

To read Congressman King’s Op-ed on the new USDA School Lunch regulations, click here.

“The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food,” said Huelskamp. “The USDA’s new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste, and unaccomplished goals. Thanks to the Nutrition Nannies at the USDA, America’s children are going hungry at school.”

Statement from King’s office, October 4 (emphasis in original):

King Supports the Nutrition Nanny Challenge to USDA

Washington, DC – Congressman Steve King (R-IA) released the following statement today in support of Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) issuing the Nutrition Nanny challenge to top USDA officials to “embrace the calorie limits and diet restrictions associated with the new mandates.” On Monday, the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Dr. Janey Thorton, the official responsible for implementing the new school lunch mandates, blogged in response to increasing criticism over the USDA’s call for parents to replicate meals that their children are being forced to eat in school cafeterias at home.

“My legislation, the “No Hungry Kids Act”, was introduced in direct response to the USDA and Secretary Vilsack’s directive to put every child on a diet,” said King. “The USDA’s school lunch requirements are only hindering, not helping, the growth of our school children. This kind of overregulation- rationing food, limiting meat consumption and putting every child on a diet- is the outcome of an ever expanding nanny state.

I support this challenge from Congressman Huelskamp to USDA employees. I too, ask that the USDA have its cafeteria meet the same standards as the 100,000 school districts that they have demanded change their menus and see how just how far 850 calories can take them.”

To learn more about the lunch standards and the reaction from students and parents around the nation, visit


Statement from King’s office, October 31 (emphasis in original):

King, Huelskamp Experience Lunch Standards Firsthand

Storm Lake, IA-Congressman Steve King (IA-05) released the following statement after hosting Congressman Tim Huelskamp (KS-01) at lunch yesterday with students at Storm Lake Elementary school.  King introduced the “No Hungry Kids Act” with Huelskamp as original cosponsor in response to the new USDA lunch standards. The “No Hungry Kids Act” repeals the United States Department of Agriculture rule that created the new standards, prohibits the USDA’s upper caloric limits, and will protect the rights of parents to send their children to school with the foods of their choice.

[two photos enclosed]

Congressman King and Congressman Huelskamp speak with students at Storm Lake Elementary.

“I am grateful I could join students and faculty at Storm Lake Elementary who are coping with the new overbearing USDA lunch standards,” said King. “I saw firsthand how President Obama, his wife, and his administration’s rationing of food to students is completely out of hand. This nanny state has gone overboard in determining what children eat- kids should be able to eat all of the healthy, nutritious school food they want. The ‘No Hungry Kids Act’ puts the power back in the hands of parents and directs the USDA to reevaluate the standards and prohibits the USDA from putting all kids on a diet just because some are overweight.”

“As I have traveled throughout Kansas and visited with students and parents about the new school lunch mandates all they want is for Washington to trust the judgment of parents and school districts to decide what is best for their children,” Congressman Huelskamp said. “This latest power grab from USDA bureaucrats in the form of menu mandates is a step in the wrong direction. Instead of increasing local control to fit the needs and diversity of each school district, this mandate imposes yet another one-size-fits-all dictate for the entire nation. I am excited to sponsor with Congressman King ‘The No Hungry Kids Act’ in order to put parents school districts back in charge of the school lunch program, and was delighted to join him here in Iowa today.”

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