When I tried to contact Marion Nestle , one of the country’s leading thinkers on nutrition, about her take on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new standards for school meals, she begged off. She was on the road yesterday, she e-mailed, and had not yet read the new rules.
But today, after reviewing the guidelines, Nestles almost sounded startled.
“They’re not bad. What a surprise,” she says during a phone call. “What really surprised me, and what I knew I had to check, was how deviant they were going to be from what the Institute of Medicine originally recommended. In fact, they followed the IOM recommendations very, very closely. There’s some minor differences. The major differences are the ones that Congress intervened with. If Congress hadn’t intervened, they would have done basically what the Institute of Medicine said.”
But Congress did intervene, and, as a result, some of the guidelines were weakened, including those intended to limit potato consumption and to stop counting a slice of pizza as a serving of vegetables.
“The Institute of Medicine had recommended a greater variety of vegetables and specifically put starchy vegetables in another category . . . to try to get kids familiar with different kind of foods,” Nestle says. “It seemed like a really good idea to me. Nobody’s saying they can’t eat potatoes.”
“Aside from that and the pizza-as-vegetable thing, they really followed the Institute of Medicine’s guidelines . . . which means that they’re based in science and based in policy and doing what they’re supposed to do,” the nutritionist adds. “I’m kind of surprised they got away with it . . . I thought there would be a lot of backtracking. I just don’t see it.”
The difficulty with implementing the guidelines, Nestle says, is that school meal programs are “completely person-dependent.
“You can go into a school that has people who are dedicated to the idea that feeding children is God’s work, and the food will be good and the kids will be eating it,” she says. “You go into a school where people couldn’t care less? The kids don’t eat [the food], and it goes into the garbage.”
“So that’s a problem,” Nestle continues. “You have to deal with the people you have on hand, and if they want to make it work, they’ll make it work. If they don’t care, they won’t make it work.”
Nestle gives a large chunk of credit to first lady Michelle Obama, who has been championing better childhood nutrition as part of her Let’s Move campaign. “This is Michelle Obama’s leadership that [was] able to pull this off,” Nestle says flatly.
In contrast to Nestle’s praise, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine issued a news release today condemning the new nutrition standards. It should be noted that PCRM promotes a vegan diet.
“Meat, cheese and junk are still front and center in school lunches,” said Susan Levin, PCRM nutrition education director, in the release. “The new USDA guidelines still do not require schools to offer meatless entrees or nondairy beverage options to all students. Meat, milk and cheese are packed with calories and saturated fat, and they play a huge role in the obesity epidemic.”
You can read the full release here.