By Kati Mora, RD for DietsInReview.com
Just when you thought there was no hope for school time lunches, first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack come to the rescue with a few new changes to the national school lunch program. These changes are outlined by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was passed last year, which gives the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the ability to set nutritional standards for all foods served in schools across the nation.
Some of these changes include setting a calorie limit for an entire meal, banning most trans fats, making fruits and vegetables more visible, providing more whole grains, and making all milk options low fat. Sure, these aren’t as radical as what the Obamas and some nutrition experts would have liked, but these small changes are a step in the right direction. This is especially true after the recent bill passed by congress that allows pizza sauce to be considered a serving of vegetables and prevented potatoes from being served less than two servings in a given week.
Since these are the first major changes made by the USDA in over 15 years, one could say that any change is a step in the right direction. And with over 31 million children receiving meals from the school lunch program, it is hoped by many that the shift in nutritional focus will have a reciprocal effect off school grounds as well.
Of course, much more planning and consideration will be needed in the days to come to fully implement this new plan. In fact, one of the biggest issues that many schools will face is the added cost of providing fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis to their students. This may force schools to get creative with their budgetary measures or, hopefully, consult with food and nutrition experts who can help them develop healthier cuisine that not only match the new guidelines, but that are affordable as well. A child nutrition bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 will also help school districts pay for some of the increased cost.
Another issue is the longevity of such changes and the effects they have on America’s collaboratively growing waistline. Many nutrition experts believe its successfully achieving and maintaining the small steps that lead to larger successes; however, with no added resources or educational components in place, it may be hard to make this one step lead to any other after it.
Not all of the changes laid out in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act will start next school year in September. Some will gradually be implemented and perhaps with this gradual move forward, areas for improvement will be noted and those continued positive steps can be taken. Additionally, as sodium levels are gradually decreased and as regular milk makes way for low fat milk, these changes may inspire many food companies to also change their ways and reformulate some of their best sellers to comfortably fit within these guidelines. Added pressure to do so may come from the fact that all foods, subsidized by the federal government or not, will be required to meet these new nutrition standards. That includes ‘a la carte’ foods and snacks in the vending machines as well.
Although the guidelines aren’t perfect, they are based on the 2009 recommendations given by the Institute of Medicine to combat childhood obesity. One can only hope that this small step occurring throughout schools nationwide will inspire parents and caregivers alike to take the next nutritional step forward by implementing good nutrition not only in the cafeteria, but starting or continuing to do so in their own homes as well.
To see an example of some of the proposed changes, you may be interested in checking out this before and after elementary school lunch comparison.