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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 The similarly outdated 1989 Recommended Dietary Guidelines have since been supplanted by the IOM's Dietary Reference Intakes.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.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 20, 2009; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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School lunches should *teach* kids -- by example -- what a healthy meal looks like.

Not a cheap-as-humanly-possible meal.

Not a loaded-down-with-sugar-and-salt-so-they'll-like-it meal.

A healthy meal.

Is that too much to ask?

Posted by: DupontJay | October 20, 2009 9:40 PM | Report abuse

My children attend school in Frederick County, MD. I was told that tater tots are the vegetable - okay, I accept that (sort of). But then I was told that rice was a vegetable!

Posted by: juliemom | October 21, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

What, we only get to have an opinion if we have kids?

Posted by: liliburlero | October 21, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Child Nutrition has changed in school foodservice. We have used lowfat,whole grain products,cut the fat,salt and sugar content in our program for several years. The content of our ala-carte items are controlled by fat,sugar,salt,calories and portion size. The state of Tennessee was just recognized for their continued effort to follow the National Standard for Child Nutrition. Most of our associates in our cafeterias are American School Foodservice Certified with continued education. Our school nutrition department is self supporting from our local government, with only federal reimbursment.(If a student takes a reimbursiable meal.) This means all of our food is not supplemented by the government and our payroll is not taken from local taxes. If parents would look into the operation of their local school nutrition program, they would give more support to that program, and everyone would prosper in our effort to give our children a nutritious and healthful experience and future. Where is the parents responsibility to join in our effort to train their children in making the right choices in life. Why are our teachers, school nutrition programs and the government to take all the blame?

Posted by: gibsonn | October 22, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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