USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – or whole new ballgame

On January 26, 2012, USDA released the long-awaited 2012 Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.  According to the website: “Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, USDA is making the first major changes in school meals in 15 years, which will help us raise a healthier generation of children.”

As students head back-to-school meals in cafeterias across the nation, the new standards are generating lots of media buzz with headlines like Schools scrambling to serve up healthier lunch choices, More vegetables, higher prices coming to school cafeteria lunch lines this fall, and Some Cocke County students finding new school lunches hard to swallow. From these news stories, it’s clear that the new guidelines are, sadly, a new whole ballgame for some districts.

The really good news for hungry children, their families and educators is that many schools have been working towards the very same science-based standards for years, even decades. This is especially true for the 3,871 schools that have met the criteria for a HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) award, a strategic component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. This impressive achievement is a strong indication of how committed school nutrition professionals are to offering students the healthiest meals possible:

“In February 2010, the First Lady and USDA challenged stakeholders to double the number of HUSSC schools within a year and add 1,000 schools per year for two years after that. We exceeded our first goal last June and this year we’ve again exceeded expectations. Not only have we surpassed our second year goal we’ve more than met our goal for June 2013 a year ahead of schedule!

How often does “ahead of schedule” happen in the real world!! Here are some of the key changes what will show up in some schools – and will be just business as usual in many other districts:


Schools are now required to serve a wide-variety of colorful vegetables each week. Additionally, in order for a lunch meal to be reimbursable, each tray will need to include at least ½ cup of fruits and/or vegetables. This will be easy in districts like Lake Stevens, Washington, where students make a “rainbow at the salad bar.”


Students must now be offered a fresh, frozen, dried, or canned (in juice) fruit for lunch. In the Montague, Michigan, School Food Service Department, they serve fruit choices daily on the lunch line. Michigan apples are so popular that Montague set a 2011 Guinness World Record for eating 9,329 apples at the same time.


As per the new standards, at least half of all grains served in school lunch must now be whole grain rich (starting in 2014 all grain products must be whole grain rich). In Douglas County Schools, Colorado, they made popular pizza smarter with a whole grain crust, roasted vegetables, and a balsamic glaze (chosen by a high school student panel).


Under new USDA guidance, schools must offer two varieties of milk: unflavored milk can be non-fat or 1%, while flavored milk must be non-fat. This milk policy has been the standard in Portland (Oregon) Public Schools Nutrition Services for more than a decade. As you can see, they also offer a colorful selection of produce!

Other mandated changes for school lunch meals include:

  • Calorie ranges for three grade groupings (K-5, 6-8, and 9-12)
  • Minimum and maximum servings per week for both grains and meat/meat alternates (cheese, beans, etc.) for each of the grade groupings

2 thoughts on “USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – or whole new ballgame

  1. This is great news for everyone – kids, parents, teachers, cafeteria workers, farmers, communities. I love seeing all those smiling faces!

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