The United States Department of Agriculture’s new school lunch requirements are expected to have a significant impact on the turkey, broiler and beef industries for not only the upcoming year, but for many years beyond.

“What they are serving in school and how they are serving it is setting the stage for the kids, and setting the stage on how they will be eating in their adult life,” said Rex Barnes of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

Barnes told members of the National Turkey Federation on February 15, that as the new regulations go into place, schools are making choices on what foods to serve, with challenges of staying within budget and being in compliance with the guidelines.

The biggest part of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s purchase program is its school lunch program, which serves more than 32 billion meals every day in schools.

According to Barnes, for every $700 million spent on proteins for school lunches, a little more than $300 million is spent on beef, while a little less than $300 million is spent on chicken and about $100 million on turkey. Very little pork is served. And while he doesn’t expect any real changes in the amount of pork served, the other numbers will likely be changing.

Last year, the Food Nutrition Service came out with new regulations to set the nutritional profiles for school lunches. Under the new rules, schools must serve a one ounce minimum of protein per meal, compared to the previous rule of two ounces of protein per meal. The new rules also have a maximum on proteins. No more than 10 ounces of protein can be served per week to elementary and middle school students, and no more than 12 ounces can be served to high school students.


Schools have had a very difficult time in meeting those new guidelines, Barnes said, and because of that the USDA has relaxed those rules for the remainder of the school year. However, they will be implemented during the 2013-14 school year.

“The schools and the industry are really struggling with this right now. Anyone who is selling to the schools is feeling it,” said Barnes. “Schools are trying to figure out what to serve and how to meet this weekly maximum they’ve never had to deal with before.”

One facet of the new rules does not mean good news for the poultry industry. Several chicken items -- specifically ones with bone-in parts – were removed from list. The Agricultural Marketing Service purchased $46 million worth of bone-in-chicken for schools last year, which Barnes estimated at more than 130 million servings in the school lunch program.

Schools are now trying to figure out what they are going to order in place of those products, and in what quantities. Barnes said his agency will be watching how they’re going to replace bone-in chicken, and what types of protein they are going to shift to while staying within all other protein requirements.

While that rule may not bode well for the poultry industry, other factors, such as commodity prices, may improve things. He said as beef prices go up, schools may look at alternatives. If they cannot afford to serve as much beef, they are apt to look at more chicken or turkey, he said.

“If a school wants to order turkey, they’re going to order more turkey,” Barnes said. “It’s their decision.”