New school lunch standards open door to increased produce sales

01/25/2012 11:02:00 AM
Tom Karst

Courtesy United Fresh Produce AssociationFirst lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced new school meal guidelines that double the servings of fresh fruit and vegetables on Jan. 25.(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 26) School meals 2.0 will include twice the servings fruits and vegetables as before, and that should mean more business for fresh produce operators.

Wholesalers and fresh produce foodservice distributors should immediately put a priority on building partnerships and business relationships with schools in their communities, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“Schools are going to be buying a lot more fruits and vegetables and we want those to be fresh fruits and vegetables because we want kids to taste a wide variety of fresh produce and increase their consumption.”

The long-awaited school nutrition standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture were introduced by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Jan. 25 at an elementary school in Fairfax. Va.

Industry and nutrition advocates were quick to praise the increased emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and reduced sodium, despite contested allowances for french fries and counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

The regulation to change school meals for the first time in 15 years drew more than 130,000 comments, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said during a news conference on the standards.

“These (science-based standards) are going to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables offered every day of the week to American school children,” he said. Cost of the changes to school meals will be $3.2 billion over five years, about half of the original cost estimate, he said. Savings were realized by phasing in the breakfast fruit requirement and eliminating the meat requirement for breakfast. The final rule also incorporates an “offer versus serve” provision, that allows students to take smaller portions of fruits and vegetables if they desire, he said.

“This is real change for 32 million kids across the country and it will have a real significant and meaningful impact on their lives,” White House assistant chef Sam Kass said in the press conference. “It is gong to take the commitment and creativity from all of us — from school chefs to parents and teachers — to see this through and help lead our kids to really embrace the change we are going to see over the next few years.”

Schools may need some training in achieving weekly menu requirements for serving various vegetable subgroups, said Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, Washington, D.C.

The new regulations, effective July 1, increase current requirements for fruits and vegetables served in school lunches from one-half to three-fourths of a cup (combined) per day to the new requirement of three-fourths to one cup of vegetables plus one-half to one cup of fruit per day. The final rule also set minimum and maximum calorie limits to school meals, with the range of calories for high school lunch ranging from 750 calories minimum to 850 calories maximum.

The updated school meal standard from will align the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs with 2010 Dietary Guidelines, DiSogra said. “It’s final and it is very very strong for fruits and vegetables,” DiSogra said.

DiSogra said the focus of efforts now will switch to training and technical assistance to schools so they can implement in the 2012-13 school year.

“The big goal is not just to serve (fruits and vegetables), but it is to increase consumption,” she said. “That means schools will have to pay a lot of attention to fruits and vegetables that (kids) will eat.”

For example, the wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a salad bar help students to take what they want and eat more.

DiSogra said there is no way to say how much of the increased volume of fruits and vegetables sold in schools will be fresh compared with processed.

“I fully expect that as they begin to implement new school regulations, you will see a lot more fresh produce (moving through schools) and you will see that increasing every year,” she said.

Fox said farm-to-school programs may also see a bump in demand from school foodprograms.

All the rule’s changes involving lunch must be implemented July 1, but new requirements for five cups of fruit per week at breakfast will be phased in over three years to save costs. The rule gives schools the option of offering vegetables in place of all or part of the required fruit component for menu flexibility and as a way to control costs.

Starchy vegetables may also be offered in substitution of fruits, as long as the first two cups of vegetables offered in substitution were non-starchy.

Mark Szymanski, public relations director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council, said there is concern about the flexibility of the breakfast program.

“They removed the prohibition for potato servings, but our concern is that USDA is once again trying to create good categories of vegetables and bad categories of vegetables,” he said.  Szymanski said the rule doesn’t take effect until the 2014-15 school year so he said the industry would talking to foodservice directors to hear opinions about the rule.

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Lawanda Baleme    
Puyallup Washington  |  January, 25, 2012 at 11:46 PM

I have been in the grocery industry for 10 years. It's alarming to watch the shopping carts of the average american. Most parents are not concerned about what they are feeding their children. The contents of a typical shopping cart consist of soda, or some form of energy drinks, chips, frozen microwaveable entrees, bakery items ect. Someone needs to watch out for he welfare or our youth. Thank you Michele Obama for taking action! Sincerely concerned citizen, Lawanda Baleme

florida  |  January, 30, 2012 at 04:29 PM

I wish she would stay out of it. If the parents won't feed the kids the proper food Lawanda, why should the taxpayers be saddles with increased cost. These kids won't eat the salads etc.. Good for fruit and vegetable growers to a point, when the food rots onthe shelves, it is bad for the taxpayers. when the government tells me or my kid what to eat, it is government involvment in our lives. I was raised on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carried from home. We were poor but their were no free lunches and nobody starved. Mrs. Obama and her husband are good as spending everybody elses money.

Denver  |  January, 31, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Complaints about wasting tax payer money are useless. We live in a society and that means we have to cooperate. We can either use tax payer money to increase the health of our kids now -- or we can use tax payer money later to pay for the health care costs later as well as decreased worker productivity and increased crime. We are a society that can function because we look out for the common good. Sure, it is not perfect, but I don't hear you complaining about roads or firefighters either. It's time we all learned to compromise and realize that we can easily be in someone else's shoes in an instant.

Texas  |  February, 01, 2012 at 07:49 AM

This appears to be great for our industry, but who will pay for the increase in costs to the schools (us as tax payers). Just read an article where Michigan is asking the federal government as to who will pay the extra $3 billion a year for the fresh produce.

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