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Getting Healthier School Meals

child having a healthy school meal

A new government report that would set maximum calorie counts for school breakfasts and lunches finds new guidelines are needed to improve the diets of U.S. school children.  The report from the Institute of Medicine says it called on the federally funded National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to update its current policies. School meals should have less salt; more vegetables, fruits and whole grains; skim and low-fat milk, and other dairy products offered.

A professor and director of the Nutrition Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Virginia A. Stallings said, “The program was due for a revision and the committee’s job was to give advice to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the school meal program,” Stallings said.  “We expect that they will take this information and revise the program,” she said.

The current standards for school meals are based on the 1995 dietary guidelines so this revision  would bring school meals in line with the latest dietary guidelines and reference intakes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report noted that added funding will be needed to put into action the changes because of the higher cost of vegetables and whole-grain foods.  But these changes are needed to assure parents that schools are providing healthful, satisfying meals.

The report on healthy school meals suggests lunches include no more than 650 calories for students in grades kindergarten through five; 700 calories for children in grades six to eight, and 850 for those in grades nine to 12. reducing sodium over the next decade from today’s average of 1,600 milligrams per lunch to 740 milligrams will make for an easier adjustment. In addition, breakfasts should contain one cup of fruit, and lunches for grades nine to 12 should also contain one cup of fruit.

Vegetable servings should increase to three-quarters of a cup a day for grades kindergarten through eight, and one cup a day for grades nine to 12.  Half of the breads and pasta should be only whole grain, Stallings said. Milk served with school meals should be skim or 1 percent fat. The School Breakfast Program is available in 85 percent of public schools today with the National School Lunch Program is available in 99 percent of U.S. public schools and in 83 percent of private and public schools.

About 30.6 million school children participated in the school lunch program in 2007, and 10.1 million children had school breakfasts. In 2007, schools in the program served about 5.1 billion lunches and 1.7 billion breakfasts, according to the report.  Stallings hopes the recommendations will filter down to the meals parents prepare at home for their kids. ” Little changes like going to skim or low-fat milk and thinking about sodium both in cooking and table salt,” she said. “I do believe that parents will be able to use some of this to talk about the kinds of fruits and vegetables they should be serving at home and other recommendations that are easily put to use.

Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University said “this update to school nutrition standards is timely, and most welcome. School nutrition standards were originally devised to protect children from malnutrition and want.”  “But in this age of epidemic childhood obesity, when children are far more likely to get too many calories than too few, and when more and more succumb to what was called ‘adult onset’ diabetes just a generation ago, the time-honored school food standards are clearly obsolete,” he said.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Chris Davis December 14, 2009, 7:46 pm

    It’s a bit late for this isn’t it? All the kids I ever see are as fat as pigs already. Mostly illiterate as well.

  • oxygen energy March 3, 2010, 5:06 am

    It is necessary to pay close attention to what kids are eating at school. Our real food has been replaced fast food/ junk foods – which are not advisable to kids and even to adults. Just remember: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”.

  • Anonymous August 23, 2010, 4:18 am

    I think the best meal for them is their own mother’s cooking.

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