Federal lunch rules will affect Wisconsin schoolsThe school cafeteria has become a new battleground.
By: By Kristen Durst, Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior Telegram
The school cafeteria has become a new battleground. Last week Congress rolled back portions of the Agriculture Department's proposed school lunch standards. The federal government is still planning to make substantive changes to the National School Lunch Program next year. That's despite congressional action last week backed by the food industry that has put a hold on some of the USDA's proposed rules.
Nutrition experts and the Obama administration say that changes to school lunches are necessary to combat rising childhood obesity. Cindy Loechler is a Public Health Nutritionist for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She agrees : "I think if we look at it in doing the best for our kids, these changes are what's good for the kids."
The USDA's proposed rules increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They also reduce sodium and fat. And they would have also limited starchy vegetables, including potatoes, to one cup a week. Susan Peterman is Coordinator of School Nutrition for the Middleton Cross Plains School District.
"There were 134,000 comments on the new nutrition guidelines that the USDA is sorting through," she says. "At least 30,000 of them came from Wisconsinites about the potato issue. For kids potatoes are good food, it's just how you make them. And when they get baked french fries from me that is a quality product full of good nutrition, potassium. "
For now schools will likely get to keep their potatoes. Congress blocked that rule along with a change that would have required pizza to have at least a half of a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. That's up from the current two tablespoons.
Loechler of DPI says that while she feels Congress' recent action is a step backward that Wisconsin schools do and will continue to serve healthful meals.
She says for example that while not yet required the USDA has been recommending whole grains since 2005. She says many schools in Wisconsin already serve them.
"A lot of them are doing the whole grain breads," she says. "We've got a lot of schools using the brown rice, we've got whole grain pastas being used, the pizza crust on lots of pizza is made with whole grain flour."
Loechler says they also work with schools to cut down on sodium levels. Jeanne (Jeanie) Hopkins is Director of Food Service at the Superior School District. She says good old fashioned cooking has helped that cause as have food manufacturers: "They are offering more lower sodium products available for sale and we are doing some amount of scratch cooking and of course with scratch cooking you can cut down on the amount of sodium in foods."
The USDA is proposing that schools serve no more 1,230 milligrams of sodium per lunch for grades k through 5 within two years, with more allowed for middle and high school. Loechler says that's similiar to what DPI currently requires in Wisconsin schools.
But Congress last week halted USDA's efforts to further cut sodium levels by over 50% to 640 milligrams within ten years. Loechler says that would have brought salt more in line with the recommended daily allowance of 2,300 milligrams a day. But Middleton's Peterman says she had concerns that went too far.
"As a dietician I am unsure of how realistic those reductions are," she says. "My position is food service is totally dependant on attracting and keeping students in the lunch lines. I can't do what I want to do for school health and student nutrition if I can't attract kids to eat with me every day."
The USDA will now have to revamp its final rules to comply with congress' action. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is promising that the new rules expected by early next year will still provide more fruits, vegetables, and grains, and less salt and fat.