Monday, September 6, 2010

Does This Look Like 554 Calories?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The federal government says that school breakfasts served to elementary school students must contain 554 calories to qualify as a reimbursable meal. The "cold" breakfast option in D.C. schools on Friday was a muffin and string cheese. My daughter, who is lactose intolerant, declined to take milk. But in terms of total calories, that would make 110 for low-fat milk, 60 for the string cheese, 55 for the orange juice for a total of 225 calories. There's no nutritional information with the muffin, but I'm guessing it does not contain 329 calories.

There's a wrinkle to the federal rules, however. The daily calorie requirement is supposed to reflect an average for the week, meaning some meals might contain more than 554 calories, others less.

The only cold breakfast option I saw listed for the first two weeks of school that came even close to that was the one with a processed breakfast bar called BeneFIT that packed a whopping 48 grams of carbohydrates (starch) and 23 grams of sugar (more than in a Pop-Tart, and almost as much as in an 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk), for a total of 290 calories. Or maybe it was Wednesday's whole wheat bagel with cream cheese and "all natural yogurt" containing four teaspoons of sugar in a quarter-cup portion.

Those are the prevailing federal standards, as administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the school meal standards contained in the District's "Healthy Schools Act" set a minimum calorie requirement for breakfast of 350 in pre-kindergarten through grade eight, and a maximum of 500. But the current food services director for D.C. Public Schools says he's adopted even better standards--those proposed by the Institute of Medicine, which call for 350 to 500 calories at breakfast for kindergarten through grade five.

The IOM standards were requested by the USDA, but it may be years before the USDA actually adopts them.

Confused yet?

You needn't be. The common denominator running through this rat's nest of government standards is that when schools are unable to offer kids enough calorie-dense real foods to comply with regulations they serve up sugar instead. To add a further complication, the federal rules state that schools can include in their calculations all of the foods offered on any given morning--the milk, the muffin, the string cheese, the orange juice--even though the kids can decline one of those items and still qualify for a federal reimbursement under the government's nutrient-based menu system, or they must take three items under the food-based menu system. (Could it be any more complicated?).

That helps explain why juice, with its extra dose of sugar, is being offered every day for breakfast in D.C. schools alongside milk.

Take your pick: On any given morning, kids aren't getting as many calories as the government calls for, or they may be getting them in the form of sugar. Does that mean schools are lax for not offering better options, or are the federal standards crazy and the amount of financial support provided by the federal government simply inadequate to offer the kinds of healthy foods kids should be eating?

The irony, of course, is that we pleaded with D.C. schools to get rid of sugar and they responded: They dumped flavored milk and sugary cereals. They've also gone to some pains to introduce things like cottage cheese and string cheese and local fruit. What else can they add in the way of real food that will satisfy the government's calorie requirements without dosing kids with more sugar?

D.C. Public Schools have an advantage as a result of the extra funding provided by the "Healthy Schools" act: 10 cents more for breakfast, 10 cents more for lunch and five cents for each meal that contains a locally grown component. Imagine the predicament of other school districts where the local government has not stepped forward with extra cash. The extra six cents per meal recently embraced by the U.S. Senate as part of the Child Nutrition re-authorization looks punier and punier all the time.


  1. Ed - In Houston ISD, kids must take the whole meal at breakfast (hence the horrible waste, as discussed here ( I thought that was a nationwide requirement based on the calorie minimums you discuss here but perhaps not. I need to look into this. Thanks as always for the great reportage.

  2. The USDA requires only that kids choose two items. But there's nothing to stop individual school districts from requiring more if they want.

  3. At breakfast, under offer vs serve, the USDA requires students to take items from 3 of the 4 food groups offered, not two. So, if a "combination" food, like a breakfast sandwich which meets both a grain and a protein requirement, is taken, then the student can complete the meal with either a fruit, or milk. But if all 4 items are offered separately - such as a small muffin that only counts as one grain, plus a cheese stick for protein, plus fruit, plus milk - then the student would need to choose 3 of those 4 items in order to have a breakfast that qualifies for government reimbursement. If the student took just two of those items - say, the small mufin and the cheese stick - that meal would not qualify.
    You can read more about offer vs serve and what makes a reimbursable meal here

  4. Thanks for that heads-up, Dana. Under the nutrient-based menu system, schools are required to offer three items, and kids must choose two. Under the food-based menu system, schools are requird to offer four items, and kids must choose three. It's difficult to adequately convey how complicated the rules are for the school meals program in a single blog post.

  5. Yes, I was talking about the food based standard, and you are right about how complicated this is!

    Under the nutrient based standard, the rule is not that kids have to take two of three items offered; rather, the rule says that kids can refuse no more than one item. This may sound like splitting hairs, but in reality what it means is that while the breakfast MUST include at least 3 items, it can include 4 or even 5. The "kids can only refuse one item" rule can be used to encourage the students to take and eat a more complete breakfast than they might if only 3 items were offered.

    The example the USDA gives is of a breakfast sandwich of eggs and ham on a biscuit; it could be offered as one item, along with (for example) an orange and milk. Under the nutrient based standard, a student could take just the orange and the milk and still have it count as a complete meal (this would not count as a complete meal using the food based standard.)

    However (the USDA example explains), if the sandwich componenets are offered separately, so that there is a biscuit, and also some scrambled eggs, and also some ham, all offered separately, plus the orange and the milk, then the student MUST take 4 of those 5 items to count as a reimbursable meal. This means the student would be choosing and ideally eating a more complete breakfast than under the three-item scenario.

    I have heard some folks argue in favor of the nutrient based standard rather than the food based standard and I realize there are some advantages to it. However, if your district is using the nutrient based standard, you may want to make sure that your meal provider does not exploit the potential savings that can accrue from only having to offer 3 components, with students only having to choose two of them.

  6. what about all natural peanut butter to go on the bagel/muffin/grain item?

    it's pretty calorie dense. not sure if it'd be very expensive for schools to serve.