Q. What rules are there for school lunch? How healthy does it have to be? Is anyone making sure my kid is eating properly?

A. There are so many rules around school lunch. Most of the rules are set by the USDA. The guidelines are implemented by individual states. Here in Colorado that would be Colorado Department of Education.

The guidelines determine the components of a meal, including fruit, vegetables, grains, protein and milk – rules around how many components kids need to take and also the portion sizes. Guidelines also address other issues, such as how much fat is allowed.

The new guidelines that are coming out actually go much further, putting caps on calories. They start to talk about sugar, the different colors of vegetables you can have and also sodium levels.

Is pizza really a vegetable?

The USDA sets out these guidelines but Congress can get involved. Recently there has been a lot of controversy about Congress saying pizza should remain a vegetable. Pizza is currently counted as a vegetable because 2 tablespoons of

"Renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper with elementary age girls at a school salad bar.
"Renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper with elementary age girls at a school salad bar.

tomato paste counts as a vegetable. I don’t think there’s one of us who sends our kids to school to eat who thinks pizza is a vegetable. The new guidelines also said you could only serve 1 cup of potatoes a week but the guidelines again were changed by Congress to say, you can have as much potatoes as you want.

Potatoes are not a bad thing, but in schools, potatoes are served as French fries, and French fries are the number one vegetable served in schools and, of course, we need to change that.

Still, the new guidelines are far and away better than anything we’ve seen in the past. And just because Congress passed these changes doesn’t mean the USDA can’t go back again. I imagine some of these things will get changed when we see the final ruling.

How healthy are school meals

Current USDA guidelines are pretty low. We could serve a kid chicken nuggets, tater tots, canned fruit cocktail and chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup and that’s actually considered a healthy meal by the USDA. “Healthy” is very qualitative and not very quantitative. For us, we would serve roast chicken and roast potatoes and salad bar, and white milk.

Who’s watching what my child eats

What the child may be consuming and what the CDE looks at are the components on the plate – not whether the child eats it. Whether or not somebody in the cafeteria is watching over what the kids eat is another issue. In Boulder Valley, we actually watch what the kids have on their plates and make sure they have a balanced meal but we don’t actually sit there to make sure they eat it. We are understaffed in all of our schools.

There are schools – most of them charter or private schools – where there’s communal eating. In those situations, I’ve actually seen teachers and adult say, ‘At least try it.’ Or, ‘You really didn’t eat enough, honey, why don’t you go back and get something else?’ but it’s not typical in a public school setting.