School Lunch Changes: What They Mean for You
The United States Department of Agriculture(USDA), with the help of the health conscious First Lady Michelle Obama, announced changes to the National School Lunch Program for the first time in 15 years as part of the implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The changes come at a time when reports about childhood obesity are at an all time high, which has implications for public health for generations to come. Whether or not you're a parent, you can benefit from the new plans. Creating a healthy lifestyle is not about cutting out foods, but broadening the scope of healthy food choices.
More Whole Grains, Fruit, and Vegetables
The new changes require school lunches to include a minimum amount of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, whereas prior regulations did not have any quantifiable recommendations. The rules draw from the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and for the first time requires specific amounts of healthy options in school lunches through grade 12. Covering both breakfast and lunches served, there is now a minimum and maximum limit on the nutritional content of meals. Specifically, half of all grains, in both breakfast and lunches, have to be whole grains - by 2014, all grains served will be whole grain. The amount of fruits and vegetables have doubled from up to 3/4 cup to up to two cups. The rules also require both a fruit and vegetable be served at breakfast. Regarding vegetables, the new requirement specifies the type of vegetable group to be served, which now includes dark green, red or orange, beans or peas, and starchy. The requirement for meat and meat alternative items now has a minimum one ounce serving. The changes mean a marked increase in phytonutrients and fiber. The new specifics of vegetable subgroups may result in less processed foods as the requirements for dark green, beans and pea options suggest whole foods.
Less Saturated Fats,Trans Fat, and Sodium
The addition of healthier fare comes with cuts to less nutritious food. New rules require all milk served to be fat-free or low-fat milk. What's more, flavored milk is now required to be fat-free. Trans fat has to be completely cut from the menu as well. Sodium is currently not regulated in school lunches, and it will be a while until the changes are made. Starting in 2014, a gradual draw-down of sodium will see sodium cut in half in lunches and a quarter in breakfasts by the year 2022. Saturated fats will stay at the less than 10% of total calories served. The American Heart Association suggests less than 7% saturated fat of total daily calories.
Portion Control & Discretionary Calories
If you can believe it, there is currently no upper limit on calories in school breakfasts and lunches. The new rules set K-5 lunches be between 550-650 calories, 600-700 for grades 6-8 and 750-850 for grade 9-12. Breakfasts are 200 calories less than the lunch recommendations. A recommended range for most school-aged kids is between 1600 and 2500 calories a day. The school lunch requirements make up more than 66% of daily calorie needs, which is right on target. The changes however, don't seem to factor snacks or discretionary calories. The ranges also seem markedly high for sedentary and overweight or obese children.
Impact on Obesity
The new rules were promoted as a way to combat childhood obesity, but in public comment, people expressed concern about specific issues that may affect the impact of the new rules. One of the items in the 80-page Final Rule mentions a la carte foods be "relative to their costs be at least as high as the revenue streams for Program meals compared to their costs." This suggests the price of alternative food choices such as cookies, drinks or other snack bar food may get more expensive. However, the new rules do not require any limits on the availability of these items. Another item hidden in the lengthy document shows the public is concerned that the meal calorie ranges are too high for students who may not be as active as previous decades. Commenters also had issue with the lack of limits on added sugars for products such as such ready-to-eat cereal, grain-based desserts, and dairy-based desserts in the new rules. Despite the positive steps towards more nutritious food, this nor any other policy will be able to prevent unhealthy food choices by children or adults. However, because healthier options are now available, it is a step in the right direction.
To see a comparison menu from the old offerings to the new click here.
How have your lunches changed since you started counting calories? What else would you change in school lunch rooms if you had a say in it?