The U.S. Department of Agriculture is calling to raise the nutrition standards for school meals for the first time in 15 years, according to USA Today.
The government’s proposed rule, to be released on Thursday, includes offering students more fruits and vegetables, and limiting French fries, sodium and calories.
“This is ‘the first major improvement’ in the standards that ‘we’ve seen in a generation, and it reflects the seriousness of the issue of obesity,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told USA Today.
Implementing new school meal standards is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that President Obama signed into law on December 13th. Despite a somewhat rocky road leading up to passage of the $4.5 billion bill, the new law provides a sweeping overhaul of child nutrition standards.
The bill was also a top priority for First Lady Michelle Obama and a cornerstone of her Let’s Move initiative aimed at combating childhood obesity in this country.
As USA Today reports, the requirements for school meals outlined in the proposed rule include:
- Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and green peas, to one cup a week.
- Reduce sodium in meals over the next 10 years. A high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Through incremental changes, that amount should be lowered over the next decade to 740 milligrams or less of sodium for grades through 9 through 12; 710 milligrams or less for grades 6 through 8; 640 milligrams or less for kindergarten through fifth grades.
- Establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time. For lunch: 550 to 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8; 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.
- Serve only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk. Currently, schools can serve milk of any fat content.
- Increase the fruits and vegetables kids are offered. The new rule requires that a serving of fruit be offered daily at breakfast and lunch and that two servings of vegetables be offered daily at lunch. Over the course of a week, there must be a serving of each of the following: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy and other vegetables. This is to make sure that children are exposed to a variety of vegetables.
- Increase whole grains substantially. Currently, there is no requirement regarding whole grains, but the proposed rules require that half of grains served must be whole grains.
- Minimize trans fat by using products where the nutrition label says zero grams of trans fat per serving.
“Currently, schools receive $2.72 from the federal government for every child who is on the free lunch program. Schools that meet the new standards will get another 6 cents per meal,” says USA Today. They also report that the USDA is asking for input on the proposed rule during a public comment period that ends April 13th. “When the regulation is final, schools will be required to meet the new standards to get government reimbursement on school meals.”
Every day across the country, nearly 32 million children eat lunch and nearly 11 million children eat breakfast at school. The University of Michigan reported last spring that middle schoolers who regularly eat school lunches have higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and consume twice as many fatty meats and sugary drinks than children who bring lunch from home.
About 25 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese or overweight, putting them at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health problems. At today’s rate, one child in every four, and one in three will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime, according to Slow Food USA. For African-American and Hispanic children, that number rises to one in two.
And a study published in 2005 found that the current generation of kids could very well be the first in 200 years to lead shorter lives than their parents – all because of obesity.
Economic disparities abound within school districts, and there are schools that have already adopted healthier menus. Access to good nutrition should not be a privilege based on wealth. Given that children consume 30 to 50 percent of their calories in school, it’s high time that school meal programs guarantee all children healthy, nutritious food. Our nation’s future depends on it.
Photo courtesy of Beau Wade, via Wikimedia Commons