Adjusting to healthier school meals

November 7, 2012

By Marilyn Csernus, MS, RD, CDE
Nutrition & Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension Serving Boone, DeKalb, & Ogle Counties

Change is not always easy, but in the case of the new healthier school meals, change is long overdue.

As students adjust to a new school year, they will also be adjusting to a change in the school lunch program. This reform in school lunch should be a welcome change.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is implementing the first major changes to the school lunch program in 15 years with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids’ Act, which reauthorized the child nutrition programs. This act authorizes the USDA to set standards for food sold in school cafeterias including “a la carte” lines, vending machines and school stores.

Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, with one-third of children and adolescents either overweight or obese. Each year, about $2 billion is spent by food manufacturers advertising unhealthy foods to kids.

For those youth who have become accustomed to french fries or tomato sauce on pizza as their only “vegetables,” change may be painfully slow. Improved nutrition in our nation’s schools is necessary to help fight the battle on childhood obesity. This change is not only important from a health perspective, but also from an academic perspective.

Children learn and concentrate better when well fed. More than 31 million children receive meals through the school lunch program and there are many children living in food-insecure households. School meals will now offer more fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk and whole grains, while decreasing unhealthy saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

Recommendations for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid’s Act were made by a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Menus now have a calorie minimum and maximum based on age and brings attention to proper portion sizes.

As with any change, there will be some opposition and criticism. It will take time for students, parents, teachers, cafeteria staff and school administrators to adjust, as the new school year gets under way. One criticism raised is that some children, for example, a football player, may not get enough calories at lunch and leave school at the end of the day hungry. Obviously, there is a vast range of sizes and activity levels among any one age group. The school lunch is one meal of the day, and children such as a student-athlete may need additional calories provided from breakfast, dinner and snacks.

Parents may need to pack healthy after-school snacks for their children involved in extra-curricular activities. A school booster club or parent organization may be able to help provide healthy snacks available for purchase in place of the unhealthy snacks from vending machines, which in the past have been all too common.

Offer positive support to your child as well as the school cafeteria staff, teachers and administration in this important change to improve the food served at school. This is one more step in alleviating childhood obesity and improving the nutritional health of all children.

Encourage children to try new foods on the school menu, and discuss the new menus and healthy eating in a positive light at home. Last, but not least, be a good role model for a healthy lifestyle by following through with the same healthy changes at home.

From the Nov. 7-13, 2012, issue

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