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Meeting the Nutritional Needs of the Nation’s Schoolchildren

Cross-posted from the Let’s Move! Blog:

Ensuring our nation’s schoolchildren have the necessary nutrition to learn, grow, and thrive is commitment that we take very seriously at U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On the heels of the historic passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA has now released a proposed rule to enhance the quality of school meals by requiring more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk in our national school meals programs.  In addition to these healthy offerings, schools will have new standards to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in those same meals.

As children now eat as many as two meals a day at school, it’s clear that the school food environment plays a more vital role in their health and welfare.  The science-based recommendations are, in fact, consistent with an Institute of Medicine report on improving the health of children.

The proposal is expected to yield very positive results, with breakfasts and lunches that are higher in nutrients and lead to a healthy body weight for kids throughout the country. A comparison of the proposed nutrition standards can be viewed here.

Providing opportunities at school for better eating habits is a major step in the Obama Administration’s effort to combat childhood obesity.  According to data, about a third of children between 6 and 19 are overweight are obese.  And sadly, these children are more likely to have risk factors associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

As you can imagine, avoiding these scenarios for as many as possible is a must for a nation as prosperous as ours.   It’s no coincidence that these updated meal requirements complement the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which among other goals, is designed to end childhood obesity within a generation.

We also recognize that the proposed changes may be as challenging as they are important.  A dialogue with schools and communities about the new standards – and practical strategies to reach them – is a critical step in the process of making them a reality for our kids.  So we look forward to hearing from our partners and the public during the 90 day comment period. After carefully considering these comments and suggestions, we will develop an implementing rule.

We look forward to your thoughts and ideas, almost as much as we look forward to a healthier next generation of Americans.

10 Responses to “Meeting the Nutritional Needs of the Nation’s Schoolchildren”

  1. Martha says:

    The example menu of current requirements v. proposed requirements appears to be inadequate on the Thursday current requirement. It only shows 1 fruit/vegetable serving – a fruit juice bar. If the remainder of the fruit/vegetable serving is on the entree, it should note that. Otherwise the comparison appears skewed.

  2. Kim Rhodes says:

    My son is in the 3rd grade in SC and buys his lunch everyday at school. He does not get a free or reduced lunch. We buy his lunch because of time restraints making his lunch as well as it costs more for us to make his lunch than it does to just buy it. I hope that these guidelines will be passed and that they go into effect ASAP. My son is borderline overweight. We keep him busy with exercise and sports and in the summer he drops weight every year. During the school year he starts gaining a few pounds by mid fall and continues until school is out. I admit that he likes to eat and doesn’t make the best choices but if they were serving healthier food, he would have to pick it or do without.

  3. M A says:

    This type of policy making is a progressive step toward a healthier America!
    Earlier this month I brought my younger brother to his Special Needs [Public] High School in Florida. We were invited by the excited students to the cafeteria to have breakfast together. My brother proudly served us two paper plates with 4 pale, soggy “French Toast Sticks” and a side of syrup. At least there was milk or juice available to drink. This is not a well balanced breakfast or a good item to promote learning about healthy eating habits! Just because fast food chains market such products does not mean they should be served in public schools. I remember saying, “Maybe next year this breakfast will be different” because of the new, higher standards.
    I mention this example because I once worked for a company that manufactures such French Toast Sticks (I imagine it is the same company that sells them to this school). During my time there I was in meetings in which the ingredients of such French Toast Sticks were discussed because of new legislation (I believe in New York) that altered the whole grain requirements. The big companies are typically faced with a tradeoff: adjust the formula to meet the minimum percentage of whole grain flour required or lose the accounts.
    In order for such progressive policy to be implemented, I believe the local employees who plan menus, buy food, and serve the students (the “food line” team) need EDUCATION, CREATIVITY, and INCENTIVES to take action and change things up. Providing healthier meals to the students will not always be the easiest route for serving the crowd. I believe items like French Toast Sticks are common because it is a convenience food. In order for this legislation to make a difference, the school districts around the country are going to have to be more proactive than simply accepting the big food corporation’s new Partially Whole Grain French Toast Sticks.
    I believe public-private partnerships could be formed to bring nutrition educators into schools (possibly college level nutrition students doing a practicum in school cafeterias); progressive local chefs and parents could get involved with food selection and preparation as well. Providing economic incentives may be necessary for cafeteria employees to adapt to healthier standards: bonuses, programs to support bringing healthier foods home to employee families (at a discount), etc.
    Some schools might even find it feasible to host/run farmers’ markets on school grounds so that parents, teachers, and the school cafeteria have access to local products.
    The students will not fight back when the schools put French Toast Sticks and Chicken nuggets on their plates, so the school district staffs need to speak up against these foods that are presented to them as affordable, easy to prepare items by the food industry. Change must be reasonable, but the children will like higher quality foods with more vegetables if they are taught to like them and such items are available. Just imagine if vegetables got marketed as much as soda does.

  4. Bonnie Long says:

    I think that the calorie limit is a good idea, but at my children’s school they offer the children the choice to purchase more than 1 meal per lunch hour which defeats the purpose of a calorie limit.

    They also have a self serve for all of the side items such as fruit and vegetables. If the children do not like any of the served items they do not have to put them on their lunch tray to help prevent throwing food away. More fruit and vegetable choices per lunch meal would help each child pick something they like.

    Concerned Park Hill School District Parent

  5. Johanna says:

    The new menu looks good, but I see problems with the amount of food. It’s a good amount, but the kids simply don’t have the time to eat it. They are rushed into the lunchroom and rushed back out so the next set has time to eat. (which they don’t, really.) Also, I think it will be good trick getting the elementary kids to eat some of the items proposed. (My kid wouldn’t touch the salad unless you made it all out of spinach…weird, huh?) I would also suggest that there were some other options for the middle school/high school crowd. I have two daughters that are overweight and are trying to watch what they eat. The problem is the lunches at school are all crappy, and half of the time my freshman doesn’t get a good choice because they didn’t prepare enough and it’s all gone by the time she gets there. In my opinion, the ala cart needs to go unless it is stocked with STRICTLY healthy choices. (No more fried mozzerrella sticks, or baked for that matter!) Also, at that age a salad bar needs to be made available with healthy choices and they need to plan enough that the kids can plan on a salad without worry that the teachers will eat it all before the kids get a chance. I have taken to packing lunches for my children in order to help them, but there are those that don’t have that luxury.

    Another problem I see is that we need to be getting a little psychological in the treatment of childhood obesity. These kids are not getting interaction from their parents and food FEELS good. I know this, because I lived this…although I did get love from my mother, but she was working when I got home from school and I was alone. Food became my friend. Unfortunately, my oldest daughter is a lot like me, and when she is hurting because of jerky kids at school and even because she is sad that she is overweight, she self medicates with food. Unfortunately, food can become a drug for some people and kids are not immune to it. This is a huge problem for the US, and I applaud your efforts and the efforts of the First Lady, but this is going to take more than a menu change and exercise.

  6. C says:

    My child likes the new choices of foods.

  7. K Boyd says:

    I think the proposed changes are a great step in the right direction. It will be an up-hill charge to change the eating habits of todays kid, because many families subsist on fast food for almost every meal. Parents need to be educated on how to cook from scratch and how to shop for that cooking. Cooking at home is without a doubt more healthy and much more economical than eating out, and can be accomplished even when both parents work.

  8. Christine Ranc says:

    I feel that creating healthier menu options for students is a good idea…however, better food is more expensive! Therefore, this needs to be taken into account. The schools need to be provided with additional money in the budget to compensate for this. Simply raising lunch prices, when parents are having a hard time finding jobs, will not help in this. The schools have to be allowed the funds to make the lunch menu better. It would also be helpful if they were given training on how to prepare healthier meals that taste good. Also, the kids need to be provided with additional time to eat. The students have about 15 or 20 minutes to eat. Even adults are given somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes!

  9. Laurence Girard says:

    Thank you for requiring school meals to contain more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. My mom is a teacher in an elementary school and she always tells me how few fresh fruits and vegetables there are for the children. When they do serve fruit, the children really enjoy it! I also think it was a great idea that you are going to put limits on the amount of saturated fat, sodium and number of calories that meals have in schools. Many schools in our district serve pizza on most days of the week and those meals are over 1,000 calories! That’s way too much especially for a small little fourth grader. Nutrition of children has been lacking in schools, but hopefully with these new guidelines things will start to get better. I loved how you pointed out that children can eat as much as two meals a day in school. This makes it even more important for us to make school meals healthy if we are going to tackle the childhood obesity crisis in America. I had a weight problem myself as a kid and part of it was because I ate unhealthy snacks at school all day! I’m a pre-med student at the Harvard University Extension School, I’m thinking about going into public health. I started a blog that talks about the nutrition crisis in America. It focuses on helping individuals learn how to lead a healthy lifestyle, check it out! :)

  10. Carl Ingham says:

    what happened to school milk in the morning?

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