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New USDA School Lunches Lack Protein Power

New USDA School Lunches Lack Protein Power

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 [3]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 [4]:

  • 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. [5]

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 [6].

“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. [7]

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?