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New USDA School Lunches Lack Protein Power

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USDA makes changes to the school lunch program -- slashing protein servings to combat obesity.

My sister Kaley started her sophomore year of high school last week. Nine years her senior, it’s fun to watch her participate in all the activities that teenagers most enjoy. She’s busy with her honors classes, two-a-day volleyball practices and basketball open gym. Top it off with washing show calves and practicing her 4-H speeches for the South Dakota State Fair this week, and Kaley is burning the candle at both ends these days. And, she needs food as fuel to keep her going.

However, if she relied on the new USDA National School Lunch Program (NSLP), she would not have enough energy to get through half of the activities she takes on each day.

NSLP is a federally assisted meal program, and this year, it’s making big changes to the menu. First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have unveiled new standards for school meals, the first changes in more than 15 years. The changes impact nearly 32 million kids who participate in school meal programs every school day.

The new meal requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was a focus of the First Lady as part of her Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

The new standards include:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

The biggest change for Kaley and her friends at school will be the reduction of protein. High schoolers are now offered 10-12 oz. of protein for the five-day school week. That equates to just over 2 oz./day.

Based on Kaley’s activity level, she simply can’t get enough with the new USDA school lunches to fuel her workouts and busy schedule. As a result, I’ve urged her to pack her own lunches. She can get enough protein in her diet by pre-cooking steaks to thinly slice and toss on salads, cooking a roast to have shredded beef sandwiches, or making beef chili or stew and keeping it hot in a thermos until lunch time. These options provide the protein power she needs to be a smart student, strong athlete and productive ranch kid. Plus, by preparing meals ahead of time at home, it saves both time and money, and it tastes good, too.

Kaley is lucky she has parents to help her put these lunches together, and that our family’s income can support the decision not to eat the new school lunches. However, many kids don’t come from this kind of household and, for too many, the school lunch is their only solid meal of the day. Filling them up with grains, fruits and vegetables while skipping the nourishing whole milk and animal proteins is a shame. This is brain food, and our nation’s youth desperately need it to fuel their growing bodies.

Advocacy and nutrition education on the local level is important; unfortunately, this is a federally supported program, so local lunch ladies don’t have much control over what they serve their students. That’s why one Iowa farmer went straight to the head honcho. At the Iowa State Fair this year, Greg Lear of Spencer, the president-elect of the Iowa Pork Producers, offered President Obama a pork chop on a stick and told him that kids need more protein.

“Because 1.5 oz is not enough protein for grade school kids when, for 30-40% of these kids, it is their major meal of the day,” Lear told Radio Iowa.

“If he’s going to eliminate something, eliminate carbs or other processed sugars,” Lear says. “And I told him the future of our kids is at stake.”

Just as I’m concerned about my sister’s health at school, there are many farm and ranch moms who are speaking out on this topic on behalf of their own children. Read what they have to say here.

What do you think? Do you think the new USDA guidelines for school lunches will help in combating childhood obesity, or will they just contribute to the problem? How do we reverse the stigma that animal fats and proteins are bad for the body? Do you think kids need more brain food in their school lunches?

Discuss this Blog Entry 19

JOY DAVIS (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

The menus at high school are not enough to keep that age children going so they will be eating more junk food just as soon as they get home from school. It is a danger to those students who participate in athletic practice after school. In short, the dietary guidelines from USDA are not on target at all. Less protein is not the answer. Less processed sugar is more like it. Fruits & vegetables are great but give them more protein.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 3, 2012

I agree 100%!! I am the kitchen supervisor/ head cook at our local school. I had training on the new guidliness during the summer. I was dreading the start of the school year. It has so far been parents complaining that there kids are hungry when they get home!! This results in them eating chips, ice cream, ect. My own son is a senior in high school who is also a football player. He eats lunch at school around 11:30 and then finishes his school day, and football practice before coming home at around 6:30 at night. He is starving by the time he gets home. I wish there was something we could to do to change this. I am okay with most of the changes they have made. The fresh fruit and vegetables are great. I have had a very hard time finding some of the products I need in whole grain. My biggest issue is with the portion of protein that I am required to serve. IT IS JUST NOT ENOUGH!!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

This conversation has been circulating around our house as well. My niece just entered 1st grade and was given a list of products that arent even allowed in the school. Along with her new dislike of taco salad, she is often hungry and tired after school. When it is chore time she has been so exhausted she wants nothing to do with the barn, her favorite activity in the past. I am concerned with this new menu and agree that is is sad to know some children dont get the food they need at home. Honestly, I could go on and on about this topic it is just sad.

Bryan (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

If you really want to be healthy, active, and lean, consider meat, milk, and eggs the three basic food groups and then add fresh fruits and vegetable to fill you up. The cheap grain, high-carbohydrate diet pushed by USDA, along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, is largely responsible for obesity and for insulin-dependent diabetes.

D. A. (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

Amen, Amanda!
And a big yes to limiting sugars! Whole milk does not hurt growing children, nor does it make them obese. Soft drinks and sugar-sweetened and high-fructose corn-syrup sweetened beverages are major culprits in making kids fat. High carb diets are addictive, and they leave kids with cravings that make them want to eat more. The conjugated linoleic acids and Omega 3 fatty acids in protein foods from ruminants (milk, beef, and mutton) actually help to curb appetite, develop more lean muscle tissue and balance metabolism. Using only skim milk and 2% in the schools actually just allows a larger share of butterfat for the production of more high-value butter, cream and cheese for manufacturers. And, as little as those who produce beef in feedlots want to hear this, I must mention that if more of our meat and milk came from grass rather than grain, as it did prior to World War II, the quality proteins and fats that our cattle are producing would be even more potent, healthful and helpful to our growing children. We are catering to the dominant production of grains on America's farms, and shortchanging our children's well-being in the process.

A retired teacher (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

Part of the obesity problem already is the lack of high quality protein in meals. Sweet breads and beverages don't keep kids from being hungry through the morning hours. Kids don't need adult style diet foods while they are growing and learning. They need moderate portions of what used to be the seven basic food groups, and they need recess and activity time added back into the school day. Kids simply throw away low sodium, no fat dishes that don't taste good.

charq (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

Here's a link to an enlightening article about proteins that was first published in November 1947. The title of the article is "How to Avoid a Famine of Quality."
http://www.journeytoforever.org/farm_library/howard_famine.html
Too bad this article isn't required reading in medical schools, nutrition classes, agricultural universities and other educational organizations that should be focused on wellness rather than illness. Even economists would do well to read this article and think about how different the repercussions would have been if we had followed Albert Howard's recommendations at the end of World War II, instead of allowing family farms to fail and fall away under the influence of Earl Butz's mandate to "get big or get out" during the boom years 1970s and the bust years of the 1980s.

on Aug 27, 2012

For many children, the school lunch program may be their only source of protein for the entire day.

Natalie (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

The new school lunch program is ridiculous! Many schools in my area are cutting back on recess time or minimizing the physical education requirements, which, in my opinion, are critical in making sure kids are getting some daily physical activity! Instead of limiting their protein and milk intake, let's increase their activity level at school when appropriate. I'm so disappointed with the USDA for allowing these protein restrictions.

on Aug 27, 2012

I am a lifelong rancher and a high school teacher of 29 years. After two days of school, the school lunches under the new program are a joke. These requirements might be suitable for senior citizens, but not for seniors in high school. As others have stated, all of the sugars are a bigger culprit than foods high in protein. Sadly, for some kids, this is the only "decent" meal they will see all day.

Jules (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

My daughter is a senior this year and she told me that she won't get to eat until later in the day (latest lunch at 12:45ish) based on her fall semester schedule. Ever since she has been in high school, she has never had activity time. When I was her age, our school always opened up the gym for kids to play hoops or let kids go outside and get fresh air -- basically, a decent break. Now, forget it! No activities and shortened lunch periods where kids have to snarf down their food. I haven't bought a lunch for my daughter since sixth grade. With fried foods and pizza as staple options in high school, you should see the weight her fellow classmates have put on in four years. They don't eat salads and lean meats. Why should they when the high fat fried foods they enjoy are available every day without parent controls over them. For my daughter, I fix a healthy lean meat sandwich with cheese (or home-cooked leftovers or salad), a small serving of baked chips, fruit and sometimes a small cookie as a treat. Water is her drink, of which she is allowed to have all during the day (thank goodness). In my day, we had one lunch option that fulfilled all the food groups, and if we wanted more we had the option to go get more for a small fee. If we had fish sandwiches or sloppy joes, you could bet you'd see boys with two or three of them. Our lunch ladies made near home cooked meals for us...you either ate what they fixed or you didn't eat. They didn't have all the options kids enjoy today. This is a good process to have in place to avoid having finicky eaters, too! Menus were posted in the hometown newspapers each week, so if you didn't like what was being served (which was rare), then you could make plans to pack. Plain and simple! We didn't have the weight problems in our schools back then either. This is a case where old school practices might not be such a bad idea to bring back.

Mathena (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

My question is what happen to choice?
They say this is "healthy choice lunches" but they really don't give you a choice. You have to eat what they give you or starve. Kind of like something you would of seen in the USSR....opps did I say that?

Jordan (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

I'm glad to see a lot of sound nutritional thoughts on this site. When will the USDA learn that saturated fat and cholesterol aren't the causes of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, it is all of the processed carbs and sugar! As a young person who used to believe that carbs=good and saturated fat=bad, I can't begin to tell you how good I feel from ditching the sugar and bread and replacing it with high quality protein and fat sources. I just hope we can get some people is high enough positions to feel the same.

mikr (not verified)
on Aug 29, 2012

Cholesterol and saturated fat are very much linked to heart disease. The Framingham Study found that no one ever had a heart attack with cholesterol lower than 150. Most vegetables are rich in protein. Check out kale, broccoli, spinach -- all are protein rich. Yes, lots of processed grains are unhealthy as are sugary drinks, including milk. Water is by far the only liquid the humans need to drink, including children. I say ditch the meat -- all meat -- and eat a vegetable-rich diet. You'll be better off.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 19, 2012

I second that!!! Eat *whole* grain bread, pasta, etc. along with beans. That will give you just as high a quality protein supply as meat and you will feel full.

MrKnowItAll (not verified)
on Aug 27, 2012

The article blames USDA, the President, and the First Lady for the school lunch program. You might do a little research and find that while the USDA is charged with implementing the new program, they nor the President, nor the First Lady wrote the specifications. That blame and/or credit goes to others. Congress passed the bill in 2010. So before you take a position, any position, please report the facts then you can have whatever opinion you want!

Tina (not verified)
on Aug 30, 2012

MrKnowitall, The PROPOSED rule for The healthy hunger free kids act was signed in 2010, but according to the USDA website, the final ruling for implementation was in 2012. See link:Final Rule: Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (1/26/12) - and if you look at the White House website the President, and especially First Lady take credit for this program. They might not have written the specifications, but they sure as heck take the credit.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Sep 6, 2012

It's terrible how they are regulating what kids eat. Our school serves lettuce salads to elementary kids. My 5 year old daughter would rather eat dirt. I would rather see them eat more protein to fuel their growing bodies than canned peaches packed in sugary syrup!

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 28, 2013

I am a vegetarian, and certainly would not advocate for more meat in the school lunch program. But I find it extremely disturbing that the caloric focus in the obama program has been with Carbs. Carbs can be bad for the metabolism, and bad for existing diabetics. I am no nutritionist, but the focus should be calories through protein-especially for muscle growth. Somehow, I wonder if allowing muscles to atrophy is part of some initiative they might have-safer schools, de-masculinizing men-eh, more than likely not, but you always got to wonder. I do fear, however, that if the obama's agreed with me about protein they they would be using soy-a natural estrogen.

It funny, that the courts have ruled in prisoner civil rights cases that when muscles are allowed to atrophy that the health of the individual is threatened. it's ironic that allowing the muscles of school aged children to atrophy is Obama's national policy. Did he really go to Harvard law?

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A fifth-generation rancher from Mitchell, SD, Amanda grew up on a purebred Limousin cattle operation in which she and husband Tyler are active. She graduated with a degree in agriculture journalism...

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