Is Pasta a Vegetable? New Proposed USDA School Lunch Rules Say Yes

More pizza and burgers—and less fresh fruit—are just a few of the changes under discussion.

USDA Nutrition Standards School Lunch
Photo: Owen Franken / Getty Images

On January 17—Michelle Obama’s birthday—the Trump administration announced a series of proposals that would further roll back the nutritional standards governing school breakfasts and lunches improved under her landmark Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The proposed rule changes allow more “flexibility” in the amount and types of fruits and vegetables served and allow schools to sell children less healthful items such as hamburgers and pizza on a more regular basis.

“Millions of American kids are getting half or more of their daily calories at school, so school meals really matter,” said Bettina Elias Seigel, a school lunch authority and author of The Lunch Tray and Kid Food. “Thanks to these and the prior set of Trump administration rollbacks, kids will be eating more refined grains, more sodium, and more potatoes than recommended, and they'll be more frequently offered less healthy a la carte foods like pizza and burgers. In an era of childhood obesity, it just doesn't make sense to go backward—especially since the USDA's own study shows that school food reform has been a resounding success.”

This is USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue's second roll-back of Obama’s HHFKA; the first, in 2018, undid the whole grain, nonfat milk, and sodium rules meant to address growing health concerns for children across the United States, including rising levels of obesity; nearly one in three children and adolescents are either overweight or obese. Attorneys general from six states and the District of Columbia and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have sued the department over the December 2018 rule, arguing that the rule puts millions of children at greater risk of health issues.

The USDA framed its most recent proposed rule changes as a response to complaints of food waste and as a way to simplify meal patterns. However, claims of food waste directly conflict with the USDA’s own 2019 data showing that the HHFKA has actually resulted in more children eating school lunch, not less. This report found that school meals are significantly healthier—41 percent overall, for lunches—after the implementation of the HHFKA, that plate waste was no worse than before school nutrition reform, and that kids’ participation was highest where school meals were healthiest.

For now, the proposed rule doesn’t actually make new law or codify any changes, rather, it seeks public comment for 60 days before it becomes finalized. But advocates warn that the last time Perdue proposed rollbacks, the final rules actually went farther than the proposed rules would have, even though 96% of public comment opposed these changes.

School districts are, of course, free to exceed the USDA guidelines and continue to follow HHFKA guidelines. New York City’s food standards, for instance, in many cases go further than the USDA nutrition requirements. The city has a list of prohibited ingredients that includes sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, preservatives such as ammonium hydroxide, and flavor enhancers such as MSG. It also prohibits most highly processed meats and offers salad bars at 1,500 schools.

“New York City kids deserve the best, and nutrition in our school meals exceeds federal standards and prioritize students’ health and well-being,” said Miranda Barbot, press secretary for NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. "Despite the Trump Administration’s attempt to roll back progress, there will be no change to school menus, and we will continue to serve healthy, nutritious, and free breakfast and lunch to our 1.1 million students every day.”

Here’s a glimpse at what these rule changes may really mean for the 30 million children served by the National School Lunch Program:

Spaghetti with Veal Meatballs
© Fredrika Stjärne

Pasta Can Be Considered a Vegetable

Remember when Amy Klobuchar argued that pizza sauce should be considered a vegetable under the National School Lunch Program? Well, under the USDA’s newest rule, it’s not just pizza sauce that’s a vegetable. So are some types of pasta. The new proposed rule will allow school districts using pastas made with vegetable flour to count that pasta as an actual vegetable—even if no “real” vegetables are served alongside it.

Potatoes Can Be Counted as Fruit

School districts could previously serve starchy vegetables in place of fruit at breakfast, but if they did so, they also had to ensure that kids were offered a range of other kinds of non-starchy, green, red, or orange vegetables at breakfast that same week. This rule change will do away with that “extra vegetable” requirement and is broadly seen as a major victory for the potato lobby.

More Pizza, Burgers, and Fried Chicken

This is a complicated one, so bear with me. Many school districts offer two lunch lines—one serving reimbursable National School Lunch Meals, and another offering “a la carte” meals and snacks for sale, a revenue booster for cash-starved school districts. Prior to the HHFKA, schools could serve whatever they wanted in that a la carte line. But the HHFKA changed the requirements for what could be served a la carte by introducing “Smart Snack Guidelines”—limits on fat and calories for items served on this line.

School districts that had been serving fried chicken sandwiches, pizza and burgers could no longer do so because the meals exceeded the allowable calorie and fat cap. To assuage schools complaining about the inability to sell these items, an exception to HHFKA was created to allow these a la carte items to be sold on the day of and the day after they were offered in the regular school lunch line.

Under the proposed new rule, school districts will be able to sell these a la carte entrees for another additional day. For example, if pizza is on the school lunch menu on Wednesday, the a la carte line can serve it on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (previously it could do this only on Wednesday and Thursday). The change essentially enlarges the loophole allowing school districts to circumvent Smart Snack Guidelines.

The USDA is also seeking comment on whether this restriction should be extended not just for entrees, but for side dishes like tater tots and french fries too, which could mean an explosion of unhealthy items in the a la carte line.

Half the Fruit at Breakfast

Under the HHFKA, one cup of fruit must be served at breakfast. In the cafeteria setting, under the “offer versus serve” model, one cup must be offered but children can take half a cup if they prefer. But in the Grab and Go setting—where children take a bagged breakfast as they come into school or after the bell—a program that is proven to reduce food insecurity—a full cup is always served. The new rule would harmonize the two systems serving so that only half a cup of fruit is served in both settings. But the calorie minimum at breakfast hasn’t changed, so those remaining calories could be made up with sweetened breakfast foods like muffins, granola bars, or cereal.

"Flexibility" Is Code for Loophole

Chef Ann Cooper, a leader in the healthy school food movement, believes the USDA has gone astray of nutrition requirements based on accepted research. “We are tired of school lunch not being considered a key element to a student's potential to thrive and succeed,” she said in a statement released in response to the proposed rules. “The term 'flexibility' used with the current administration's rollback of the HHFKA regulation adherence is the most concerning piece to us. We do not provide kids with the 'flexibility' to bypass algebra or skip learning about grammar or biology if they like other subjects or topics more. We understand that there is a foundational learning curriculum that students need to thrive and be successful. We ask that the same theory be applied equally across the school day. We know which foods are healthier, even if kids prefer food that is not. We should not be providing the 'flexibility' to serve kids what they prefer if we know it’s less healthy for them.”

Comment Now

Given the potential impact of these proposed rules on the health of 30 million children who use the National School Lunch Program—in particular low-income children who are already suffering from high rates of obesity and related chronic disease—the opportunity to comment on these proposed new rules is important. Any member of the public, from concerned parents to passionate eaters, can comment for the next 60 days here.

Andrea Strong is a journalist who covers food policy and the restaurant business. She is also the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance. Follow her on Twitter: @strongbuzz @nycschoolfood.

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