MA School Nutrition Guidelines

Recently, the Department of Public Health released the proposed nutrition standards for the School Nutrition Bill (passed in 2010).  These regulations would do more than any other state in ensuring that our children are provided the safest most nutritious food possible while in school.  Nearly 1 million Massachusetts children will be affected by this every day and we know the potential change these regulations can make in the food environment of their schools.

Generally, we feel that the proposed DPH standards combine common sense with the best science and will protect student’s health.  We see a few ways the standards could be strengthened, and yet we also understand that there is some opposition to pieces of the standards.  In developing written testimony in support of the standards, we’ve spoken with partners such as the Worcester Public Schools, School Committee members and parents, the Mass Public Health Association and partners in the Act FRESH Campaign from across the state.  We wanted to share with all of you some of our thoughts, as well as some of the testimony from other folks in the field.

We agreed with many school food advocates that the sugar content allowed in snacks and desserts should be modified so that total sugar may not exceed 20% of calories and 9g sugar per portion as served, as opposed to the 35%  proposed in the regulations.  We feel that nutrient-dense yogurt may exceed these limits, but may not exceed 20g of sugar per serving.  In addition, we feel that when it comes to whole grains, we urge DPH to specify the amount of whole grains a grain-based product must contain.  The Mass Public Health Association, for instance, recommends 50% whole grains by weight.

Steve Miller,  Executive Director of the Healthy Weight Initiation at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dept. of Nutrition issued some strong feedback to DPH regarding removing ambiguity from the standards:

Fiber is an essential part of any diet.  While several of the proposed regulations have fiber content implications, it isn’t spelled out.  A statement should be added that “grain-based food items must contain a minimum of 2g per serving of dietary fiber. All foods must include at least one gram of fiber per 10 grams of carbohydrates, except for dairy products.”

It is good that the proposed regulations will apply to “competitive foods and beverages sold or provided in public schools.”  But this still leaves too much room for interpretation and wiggling.  It would be better if the regulations explicitly stated that they apply to “celebrations, fund-raisers, and any other event that takes place at any time on school property or is under the supervision of school employees.”  Allowing unhealthy food to be used as a “treat” sends a very powerful – and wrong – message about its desirability.  And, too often, the growing number of our children with diabetes are forced to isolate themselves from the party or, even worse, succumb to temptation and sneak over to eat some of the junk.

We also know that there is concern regarding the removal of 10 oz. milks and eliminating flavored milk.  For example, Tracy Novick, parent and School Committee member in Worcester submitted testimony stating,

The sale of milk in 10 ounce bottles at our secondary schools in Worcester gives children who are still growing much-needed amounts of calcium, riboflavin, phosphorus, and vitamins A, D, and B12. Children ages 12 and over need to drink more than 8 ounces of fluid midday… A child who chooses to bring lunch from home should have the same choices available as the child who purchases the entire school lunch. Flavored milk should be as available to the child bringing a sandwich from home as it is to the child purchasing lunch from school.Likewise, the eventual ban on flavored milk makes little sense. Chocolate or other flavored milk, properly done (without high fructose corn syrup, for example) is not the enemy. As a creative (and not high-sugar) way of getting children to increase their consumption of milk, it fills gaps recently identified by the Dietary Guidelines. We should be encouraging milk consumption.

We know others in the state, however, that feel strongly that flavored milk should be phased out and is an unnecessary source of sugar.  Many say that if children and youth have only plain milk, they will drink it.

Here in Worcester our public schools have done an amazing job in delivering school meals that are healthy, nutritious, and source locally grown and produced foods as much as possible.  And because of the absence of “a la carte” foods and vending machines, we are fortunate to be one step ahead in providing a healthy school food environment.  We feel that these regulations will make permanent the successes the schools have already had, as well as raise the bar even higher on certain aspects of school nutrition.

If you wish to submit your own testimony (as a resident/ parent/ organization) please send it before April 8th to:  DPH requests that electronic testimony be submitted as an attached Word document or as text within the body of an email and that “Nutrition Standards” be in the subject line.  All submissions should include the sender’s full name and address.  DPH will post all electronic testimony that complies with these instructions on its website.