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Weighing Healthier Options

School nutrition rules, regulations
by Gary Adkins
Illinois School Board Journal, March/April 2004

Gary Adkins is IASB director of editorial services and Newsbulletin editor.

Weighing Healthier OptionsMost of the rules and regulations governing nutrition in Illinois public schools are established through federal school meals programs, mainly through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).  The NSLP is the largest (serving more than twice as many schools as the school breakfast program) federally assisted meals program, operating in nearly 95,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions.

NSLP provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 15 million children each school day, including 673,775 children in Illinois. NSLP also provides nutritionally balanced paid lunches to nearly 12 million children daily, including 412,349 in Illinois.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Food and Nutrition Service, administers NSLP at the federal level. At the state level, the NSLP is administered by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), which operates this large program - 4,414 schools participated in FY 2003 - through agreements with local school districts.

School districts that choose to take part in the lunch program receive cash reimbursement and donated commodity assistance from USDA for each meal they serve. In return, the schools must serve lunches that meet Federal nutrition requirements, and they must offer free and reduced-price lunches to eligible children. The USDA promulgates regulations that have to be followed by each school nutrition program as a condition of receiving reimbursements. The regulations are extensive, highly prescriptive and demanding.

Federal regulations

Regulations for the National School Lunch Program (7 CFR 210, Section 210.11) and School Breakfast Program (7 CFR 220, Section 220.12) generally prohibit the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV) during these programs' meal periods. For artificially sweetened foods, USDA defines FMNV as a food that provides less than 5 percent of the dietary reference intakes for each of eight specified nutrients (protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, calcium and iron) per serving. For all other foods, FMNV are those that provide less than 5 percent of the DRI for each of the eight nutrients per serving and per 100 calories.

Federal regulations (Appendix B to 7 CFR 210 and 7 CFR 220) also define four specific categories of FMNV, including:

  1. Soda Water
  2. Water Ices (except water ices which contain fruit or fruit juices)
  3. Chewing Gum
  4. Certain Candies, including:
    • Hard Candy - such items as sour balls, fruit balls, candy sticks, lollipops, starlight mints, after dinner mints, sugar wafers, rock candy, cinnamon candies, breath mints, jawbreakers, and cough drops
    • Jellies and Gums, including gum drops, jelly beans, jellied and fruit-flavored slices, and "Gummi Bear" type products
    • Marshmallow Candies
    • Fondant, such as candy corn and soft mints
    • Licorice
    • Spun Candy
    • Candy Coated Popcorn

In addition, the federal meals program regulations prohibit "competitive foods," foods sold in competition with federal school food programs. This article is based on 2004 regulations. However, links to the current regulations may be found at:

National School Lunch Program ,7 CFR 210,Section 210.11:
http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&rgn=div5&view=text&node=7:4.1.1.1.1&idno=7

School Breakfast Program , 7 CFR 220,Section 220.12:
http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div5&node=7:4.1.1.1.3

State regulations

"Federal regulations are more restrictive than state regulations," according to Rita Harper, ISBE's acting administrator for nutrition programs. The state regulations in Illinois prohibit the sale of competitive foods during school mealtimes  only  to elementary students in schools participating in the National School Lunch program. These state-prohibited foods are similar to the foods the USDA defines and restricts as "competitive foods," but Harper says the state's list of prohibited foods for mealtimes at elementary schools are not as clearly defined. (See "School Food Service" in Sec. 305 of the Illinois Administrative Code: www.isbe.net/rules/archive/pdfs/305ark.pdf .)

ISBE recommends, but does not require, that schools be prohibited from offering junk foods in after-school programs. ISBE also recommends including fruits or vegetables among foods offered a la carte during breakfast or lunch periods. The state board does not, however, require or recommend that schools include fruits or vegetables among foods offered in vending machines.

State regulations in Sec. 305 list some general categories of competitive foods that are not allowed to be sold to elementary school students during regular school breakfast and lunch periods, including: "all confections, candy, potato chips, carbonated beverages, fruit drinks containing less than 50 percent pure fruit juice, tea, coffee, and any other foods or beverages designated as such by the State Board of Education."

In 1994, FNS launched the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children to teach children the importance of making healthy food choices and to support school food service professionals in delivering healthy school meals. Supported by legislation passed in 1994 and 1996, the initiative updated nutrition standards so that school meals would come closer to meeting the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. New regulations implementing the initiative became final in June 1995 and took effect at the beginning of school year 1996-97.

No specific food requirements

School lunches provided through federal meals programs must meet Federal nutrition requirements, but decisions about specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are left up to local school food authorities.

Current regulations require schools to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school meals to provide one-third of Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.

The Nutrient Standards for healthy school meals were established for school menu planning systems by weighting and averaging the RDA for different groups of children. The standards are set using the RDA because they are considered to be the best estimate of how much of a nutrient intake is required.

USDA says it has made a commitment to improve the nutritional quality of all school meals. The Department works with state and local school food authorities through the Nutrition Education and Training Program and Team Nutrition initiative to teach and motivate children to make healthy food choices, and to provide school food service staff with training and technical support.

Free, reduced-price meals

Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level (currently incomes of $23,920 or less for a family of four) are eligible for free meals. Those between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level (currently $34,040 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.

Children from families with incomes over 185 percent of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. Local school food authorities set their own prices for full-price meals.

Most of the support USDA provides to schools in the National School Lunch Program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served. The 2004 reimbursement rates, as published in the  Federal Register, for school lunches are as follows:

Cash Reimbursement Rates for Free meals: $2.19
Reduced-price meals: $1.79
Paid meals: $0.21

In addition, schools in the NSLP receive $0.1250 from the state for each "free" lunch served, under an Illinois law reimbursement provision.

In addition to cash reimbursements, schools are entitled by law to receive commodity foods, called "entitlement" foods, at a value of 15 cents for each meal served. Schools can also get bonus commodities as they are available from surplus stocks. Under the School Meals Initiative, USDA also provides schools with technical training and assistance to help school food service staffs prepare healthy meals, and with nutrition education to help children understand the link between diet and health.

Foods schools get from USDA

States select entitlement foods for their schools from a list of more than 60 different kinds of food purchased by USDA and offered through the school lunch program. The list includes fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables; meats; fruit juices; vegetable shortening; peanut products; vegetable oil; and flour and other grain products.

Bonus foods are offered only as they become available through agricultural surplus. The variety of both entitlement and bonus commodities schools can get from USDA depends on quantities available and market prices.

About 17 percent of the total dollar value of the food that goes on the table in school lunch programs is provided directly by USDA as commodities. Schools purchase the rest from their own vendors. As a part of its School Meals Initiative, USDA has placed special emphasis on improving the quality of commodities donated to the school lunch program, including a significant increase in the amount and variety of fresh produce available to schools.

Foods required in a school lunch program

USDA does not require schools to serve - or not serve - any particular foods, but school meals must meet Federal nutrition requirements.

Until the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children several years ago, the Federal nutritional requirements for school meals had not changed significantly since the school lunch program began in 1946. As part of that initiative, USDA published regulations to help schools bring their meals up to date to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new regulations require schools to have met the Dietary Guidelines since school year 1996-97, unless they received a waiver to allow an extension of up to two years. Schools' compliance with both the Dietary Guidelines and the RDA's is measured over a week's menu cycle.

Under federal regulations, schools have the option to choose one of five systems for their menu planning: NuMenus ("Nu" stands for nutrition), Assisted NuMenus, traditional meal pattern, enhanced meal pattern or other "reasonable approaches." Both the NuMenus and Assisted NuMenus systems base their planning on a computerized nutritional analysis of the week's menu. The traditional and enhanced meal pattern options base their menu planning on minimum component quantities of meat or meat alternate; vegetables and fruits; grains and breads; and milk. The fifth menu option allows schools to develop other "reasonable approaches" to meeting the Dietary Guidelines, using menu-planning guidelines from USDA.

Weighing Healthier Options

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