The New Guidelines for School Food Standards

School lunch
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In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to ensure that every child in the U.S. has access to the sound nutrition he or she needs for good health. Another goal behind the law: To help reduce the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S. To put the legislation into action, in January 2012, the USDA devised new school meal standards, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. (Before this, the nutrition standards for school meals hadn’t been updated since 1995!) So far, more than 90 percent of schools report they are successfully meeting the new nutrition standards and participation is continuing to increase in many parts of the country.

Revising the Template for School Meals

In a nutshell, the new school meals are designed to be high in nutrients and sufficient in calories for children’s needs, based on the latest nutritional science. School breakfasts and lunches are designed to provide approximately 25 percent and 33 percent, respectively, of kids’ daily calorie needs, based on the age of children being served. Among the highlights of the new standards: Students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week (approximately double compared to the previous standards), as well as more whole-grain foods, and only low-fat and fat-free milk varieties. Consistent with the current dietary guidelines, school lunches require at least 1-to-2 ounces of protein-rich foods (such as lean meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, beans, and seafood) per meal. There’s also a requirement to reduce the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, and added sugars in school meals.

Rethinking Snacks

Greater attention is also being paid to the notion of “smart snacks” that are served in schools. Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, all foods that are sold at schools—a la carte, in the school store, or in vending machines—during the day were required to meet nutrition standards. The new standards preserve the option for parents to send their kids to school with bagged lunches or to send special treats for birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations.

Progress is already being noted. A 2014 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the new federal standards have led to greater fruit and vegetable consumption among kids—an overall increase of 23 percent for fruit and a per child increase of 16 percent for vegetables. But other studies have found that a considerable amount of food waste still occurs under the new guidelines so clearly more work needs to be done. One measure that might help: Increasing the length of lunch periods. A study involving 7th and 9th-grade students in California found that a longer lunch period was associated with a 40 percent increased likelihood that students would consume fruits and a 54 increased likelihood that they would consume vegetables at school. Moreover, including a salad bar and involving students in food service decisions increased the likelihood that they’d consume vegetables

Given that kids spend a significant amount of their days in school and that a substantial portion of their calories is consumed in school, it’s important for schools to send clear messages about what’s healthy for kids to eat each day. While this is important for all children, it’s especially crucial for children from low-income families who may not be able to afford to send them to school with a bagged lunch. On these fronts, the new school food rules are a step in the right direction.

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