School Lunch: The Half Truth about Whole Grains

, food systems & health analyst | May 7, 2015, 9:51 am EDT
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As the debate over school lunch nutrition standards continues in Congress, I’ve heard a number of claims that don’t ring true. Today I’ll look at an argument I’ve been hearing about the challenge of incorporating more whole grains into children’s lunches.

On May 1 Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Angus King (I-ME) introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act (S.1146). The bill allows schools to roll back whole grain standards recently implemented under the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Senators Boozman (R-AR), Cotton (R-AR) and Risch (R-ID) are additional co-sponsors of the bill.

Whole grain

Grain quality from left to right: whole grain, whole-grain rich, and half whole grain-rich.

Before HHFKA, federal standards required schools to serve at least one ounce of grains in each meal; whole grains were encouraged but not required. After HHFKA, improved standards for school meals included serving more “whole grain-rich” foods. In 2012, schools began implementing these standards in phases. For the 2012-2013 school year, half of all grains served during lunch had to be whole grain-rich. As of July 1, 2014, all grains sold in federal school meal program needed to be whole grain-rich.

So what exactly does whole-grain rich mean? Naturally, before doing some research, I assumed that “whole-grain-rich” meant 100 percent whole grains. However, the actual definition of whole grain-rich is that at least 50 percent of the grain content be whole grain. So when federal requirements state that 100 percent of all grains be “whole grain-rich”, it really means that 100 percent of all grains be 50 percent whole grain. Sound confusing? I agree.

Just as I was confused over the grain content in “whole grain-rich,” maybe others are too. If USDA says “whole grain-rich” and the average parent or politician hears “100 percent whole grain” they may be more likely to view the standard as an unreasonable request. Despite any confusion over terms, parents strongly support whole grain content in school meals. In a 2014 study, 64% of parents agreed that schools should be “required to provide foods made with whole grains with every meal.”

The Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act introduced last week requires that only half (50 percent) of all grains in federally reimbursable meals be whole grain-rich (50 percent whole grain). With a little math, the Senators are basically asking schools to decrease the whole grain content from 50 percent to 25 percent. Co-sponsor of the bill, Senator Hoeven told the School Nutrition Association, “This legislation is all about providing both good nutrition and flexibility.”

However, can we really say that providing 25 percent whole grains to America’s children is “good nutrition”? It’s better than nothing, but it only gets us a quarter of the way there.

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