What school lunches should look like
If the Institute of Medicine gets its way, kids who eat school-provided breakfast and lunch may soon be consuming more apples and oranges and fewer tater tots.
The IOM, an independent organization (one of the four National Academies) that advise the federal government on health and nutrition matters, issued a report today outlining its recommendations for improving standards for the national school nutrition program, in which virtually every public school and the vast majority of private schools take part. The report comes a few weeks after the Child Nutrition Act expired on September 30; Congress is due to reauthorize it this session.
The recommendations show how far we've come from the time when the nation was concerned about fattening up undernourished kids. The standards have long required a minimum number of calories per meal (depending on the age of the student). But the new rules would, for the first time, establish an upper limit for calories (650 per lunch for kids in grades K-5, 700 for kids in grades 6-8 and 850 for those in grades 9-12).
The guidelines also embrace a gradual reduction in sodium content over the coming decade, noting that too dramatic a cutback would leave school food unpalatable.
Other key recommendations: students should be served more fruit, only half of it in juice form; more leafy and orange vegetables but fewer potatoes; only 2 ounces of meat at lunch and 1 ounce in school-provided breakfast; more whole grains, and 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole or 2 percent.
The school lunch program's current nutrition standards are based on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for America -- which were revised in 2005 and are again under revision, with a new set due next year. The similarly outdated 1989 Recommended Dietary Guidelines have since been supplanted by the IOM's Dietary Reference Intakes. An IOM spokeswoman tells me the new standards are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate any changes to come in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It's about time the nutrition standards were updated. With more than 30 million kids taking part in school lunch programs and 10 million eating school breakfast, the potential impact of making their meals more nutritious and healthful is monumental.
But the report notes that the changes won't be inexpensive. Replacing today's offerings with more fruit, vegetables and whole grains costs money, as does retooling school kitchens and retraining cafeteria staff to prepare more healthful food. President Obama has put an extra $1 billion in his 2010 budget proposal for child nutrition, including school meal programs.
I don't know where that money's going to come from. But finding it should be a priority.
Weigh in on school lunches in today's poll -- and elaborate in the comments section.
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