FRIDAY, May 13 (HealthDay News) -- School lunches have long
served as the punch line of jokes, prompting chuckles about
"mystery meat" and angry lunch ladies.
But no one's laughing these days, with childhood obesity
reaching epidemic proportions in the United States. Instead,
parents are looking to schools to help keep their kids fit and
healthy through proper nutrition.
"Five days out of the week, many kids are getting two of their three daily meals at school," said Marjorie Nolan, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "School districts have an opportunity to teach children how to eat, as well as providing healthier food."
School nutritionists have for years made quiet progress in
improving the healthiness of the food that's served to millions of
kids for breakfast and lunch. But now they have the backing of the
federal government, with the passage in December of the Healthy,
Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law gives the U.S. Department of
Agriculture the power to set standards for food available to kids
at school, and offers extra money to schools that meet those
Childhood obesity affects nearly one of every five American kids
6 to 19 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. The rate has risen dramatically, more than
tripling over the past 30 years.
The USDA wasted no time flexing its new muscles, releasing in
January a proposed set of rules that would drastically improve
school meals by reducing fat and sodium while increasing whole
grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The federal law also will require the agency to create
nutritional standards for so-called "competitive" foods -- the
stuff kids can buy in vending machines or at school stores, outside
the normal school lunch program.
"These steps are being taken very seriously by the USDA and the government," Nolan said. "It's going to be a challenge for the school districts to make these changes, but the USDA definitely seems to be doing things to try to make it manageable."
The USDA rules call for:
Many of these standards come in areas that have had little or no
federal regulation in the past, said Leah Schmidt, director of food
and nutrition for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City,
Mo., and vice-president elect of the School Nutrition Association.
But some schools had already jumped on the issue.
"It wasn't a real surprise to us," Schmidt said. "Many of the school districts participating in the national school lunch program already are working on the changes that are now official in the legislation."
For example, many schools already had weaned students off whole
milk and now serve only 1 percent or skim milk. School
nutritionists also have been working on adding more whole grains,
fruits and vegetables to their menus, and reducing the amount of
sodium in the foods they serve.
"We've already seen a lot of products that have been reformulated, bringing down the sodium content in them," Schmidt said. "This is not an unexpected thing for us."
The new federal law and the USDA rules do add one important
thing: They bring order and unity to a healthy school meals
movement that had been progressing in piecemeal fashion, said
Marcia Smith, nutrition director for the Polk County Public School
District in Florida and past president of the School Nutrition
"For us, it's wonderful that we now have something in place where we are all doing the same thing," Smith said. "Now we can all move toward the same goal. It's difficult when everyone is working with different standards."
Food manufacturers will benefit because they often had to
produce similar items in different ways to meet the nutritional
standards of different school districts, Smith said. That in turn
increased the cost to the schools.
Which isn't to say that meeting the USDA requirements will be
cheap. Fresh and nutritious food is more expensive than processed
foods, and it has a shorter shelf life, Smith said.
"It's definitely going to take additional money," Smith said. "When we serve fresh green beans versus canned green beans, the cost is nine cents more per serving. It's worth the additional money. We just have to find ways to absorb that additional cost."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on
A companion article has more on
school system efforts to improve lunchroom
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