New York City Might've Gotten A Bit Too Slash-Happy When Cutting Calories From School Lunches

In its haste to combat a rising childhood obesity epidemic, New York City went gangbusters on its school lunch menus, slashing calories left and right by replacing items like french fries with baked potato strips and offering nonfat chocolate milk, among other things. But it turns out they went a little too far to the other side, resulting in lunches that don’t have enough calories to meet federal nutrition requirements. Whoops.

The problem arose because Mayor Bloomberg’s administration kinda sorta ignored a set of United States Department of Agriculture requirements from 1994 without deigning to ask the agency for permission first, reports the New York Times. The city serves 860,000 school lunches per day, and in its quest to make sure those meals were nutritious, it apparently cut calories to below the minimum required by the USDA.

The city’s health department notes that cutting calories wasn’t the goal, but just a “secondary response” as it was reconfiguring school lunches to be healthier.

“Our mentality is to feed food to children, not nutrients to astronauts,” said the chief executive for school support services for the New York City Education Department.

But the city also claims that it’s totally in line with new federal guidelines set to go into effect this school year. Those requirements reduce the minimum calorie count by more than 200 calories in certain grades, and also outline what the maximum calories in a meal can be. Health officials are admitting, however, that older kids need more calories than they’re currently getting.

That’s all going to change, as the Education Department’s chefs have hit the test kitchen to retool menus and ensure that they’re all on the nutritional up and up, including putting enough (healthy) calories in to sustain students.

Critics like the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger sees the city’s calorie-cutting as part of a larger plan to play politics, at the risk of underfeeding children.

“It is based on politics and personal whims, not nutrition science,” he said. “It is based on the city’s absurd belief that hunger no longer exists among children, despite federal data that proves that one in four New York City children live in food-insecure homes. The city’s one and only response to child hunger is taking food away from kids.”

The old rules required most meals to contain 785 calories at lunch, while the new ones have a 550-calorie minimum through fifth grade, 600 for middle school and 750 for high schoolers. Each have a maximum amount of 100 calories more than their minimums.

Lunch Trays Got Too Lean in City’s Fight Against Fat [New York Times]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.