January 19, 2016

The rain is here (aloha, El Nino) and so are the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Released every five years, the Guidelines help shape what Americans eat (or at least are “supposed” to eat) over the next five years by informing “the development of Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs”. The Guidelines are particularly important to the school nutrition community because they will undoubtedly influence the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the reauthorization of the Health and Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), happening any day.

So, what do these Guidelines say? What are we “supposed” to eat? What are we “not supposed” to eat? What will students see on their lunch trays in the near future?

1. DO: Eat a plant based diet, rich in colorful vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein, and low fat dairy. Choose nutrient dense foods, meaning, significant nutritional contribution for the amount of calories.

Lunch tray translation: HHFKA mandates students are served a daily vegetable and already has vegetable sub groups or “categories” in place, classifying vegetables based on their color and nutrient contribution: dark green (broccoli, spinach, lettuce), red/orange (squash, carrots, tomatoes), starchy (corn and potatoes), legume (beans and peas), or other (avocado, celery, cucumbers). Low fat and/or non-fat milk is also offered with lunch to every student, every day.

2. DON’T add sugar. To anything. The Guidelines strongly suggest reducing sugar intake, especially added sugar, noting the impact on health and the increased risk for diabetes and heart disease in both adults and children. Additionally, the average American consumes around 30 teaspoons per day of sugar, half of which comes from sugary beverages and the recommendation is to bring that number down, drastically. Consider calorie and nutrient contribution when selecting beverages.

Lunch tray translation: In schools, there are very specific guidelines on what beverages and food students can and cannot be served because of its sugar content. The days of high sugar beverages and food in cafeterias including Coca-Cola or Pepsi, fruit punch, and candy are long gone. Today, milk, 100% juice, and low calorie, low sugar electrolyte replacement beverages like G2 can be offered to high school students. Students in grades K through 8 are offered only milk-either plain low-fat or flavored non-fat. Additionally, all grain based products, even the sweet ones (i.e. cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls) must be both low sugar AND whole grain rich-a far cry from the days of designated bakers in schools whipping up cake and cookies.

3. DO limit saturated fat (from animal sources: cheese, meat, dairy) to less than ten percent of daily calories. This is generally believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Saturated vs. unsaturated fat ratio recommendations have been part of the “American” nutrition fabric for quite some time and are included in the HHFKA (2010).  What is noteworthy is the affirming nod to the Mediterranean Diet detailed in Appendix 4, USDA Food Patterns: Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern of the Dietary Guidelines. Appendix 4 recommends choosing more seafood and fruit and less dairy that the typical US Diet as well as increased nut, seed, and olive consumption (the good fats!). The Med Diet has been widely studied in recent years and data has shown lower incidences of disease throughout the life span.

Lunch tray translation: Continued mandate to limit fat, perhaps incorporate more legumes as meat alternate sources.

4. DO limit sodium. Americans eat A LOT of salt! Minimizing processed food intake will drastically cut sodium consumption.

Lunch tray translation: Sodium has turned out to be one of the most divisive topics in recent school lunch history as sodium limits have and will continue to drop over the next eight years (HHFKA, 2010). Recognizing that resistance is futile, recipes are being rewritten nationwide and food manufacturers are scrambling to reformulate products to remain in compliance with the sodium limits that will drop again in the 2017 school year. The end game, in 2023, is a complete meal with about 700mg of sodium-challenging to say the least. For reference, a teaspoon of table salt has 2300mg of sodium which is the Recommended Daily Allowance. The School Nutrition Association is asking to halt further sodium restriction, arguing food will be difficult to prepare and taste so bland that students will just stop eating school lunch. Food advocates are lobbying to continue instituting the restrictions as they were originally written and published in 2010 citing SNA’s close relationships with big money food producers. Stay tuned!

The Dietary Guidelines have elicited both praise and criticism from groups with a vested interest in food politics and the health of our nation’s children.  Political school lunch battles are being fought in Washington and all eyes remain focused on the HHFKA reauthorization and its continued influence on what students will be fed in school. We hope our campaign, to cook and serve quality school food, speaks directly to our students, who we think matter most.