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Putting Real Food in School Lunches
More whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables will be on the menu for 31 million children who participate in the federally-supported National School Lunch Program under new nutrition standards announced Wednesday with the hearty support of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Imagine children coming home from school with a newfound love for spinach, sweet potatoes and whole-wheat spaghetti. Hoping to turn many parents’ dreams into reality, the Obama administration unveiled new school meal standards (PDF) on Wednesday as the First Lady looked on approvingly.
Based on the Institute of Medicine's science-based recommendations, the new standards are the first upgrade to the nutritional standards for school meals since 1995, when dieting on low-fat cookies was the rage.
It marks an important milestone in the fight for good food for all. Schools’ misguided reliance on processed foods for speedy, low-labor cost production, industry’s $1.6 billion in child-targeted advertising and a lack of faith in our children’s dietary curiosity has created a generation of “picky eaters” with dull palates.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that a 2010 study by scientists at the National Cancer Institute found that nearly 40 percent of the calories American children eat come from empty calories – cookies, sodas, pizza and the rest.
Reversing this SALT! SUGAR! FAT!-conditioning is a daunting task, as many parents know. The new standards will help by giving the 31 million children served by the National School Lunch Program a chance to educate their palates and vary their dietary repertoire by exposing them to more whole grains, dark leafy greens, orange vegetables and often-overlooked legumes – all the stuff we say our children are supposed to eat!
The new policy sets calorie limits per meal and more than doubles the mandated minimum servings of fruits and vegetables. It will ensure that whole-grain foods, beans and dark green and orange vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes become staples in school meals. It also sets targets for reducing the sodium, saturated and trans fats in school children’s diets.
School meals can help children develop healthy eating habits – or they can prime them for a life of poor health and unnecessary suffering (did you hear about Paula Deen’s statistically unsurprising diabetes diagnosis?). With nearly 17 percent (12.5 million) of America’s children now clinically obese and a staggering 32 percent overweight, the time is long past to address the unhealthy food environments our children live in.
School meals are an important piece of the puzzle. Done right, they can significantly expand access to and appreciation of healthy, nourishing food. Done right, they can help shift the eating norms in a school, in a community and – in tandem with other efforts such as the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Bill – in the entire country.
The school meal standards are a long-overdue investment in the future health and productivity of our children, and they will save billions of dollars in future health care costs. According to a report (PDF) by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the diet-related medical costs of four illnesses alone – diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke – total $38 billion a year. There is substantial evidence that people who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables are far less likely to suffer these health problems.
Despite the benefits (and deliciousness!) of fruits and vegetables, America’s children eat shockingly little produce. According to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 1 percent of adolescents eat their recommended servings of fruit and vegetables.
Now, however, schools across the country (even those without activist parents or community members insisting on better food) will have the tools and – equally important – the financial support to re-imagine the meals (PDF) they serve their students.
The standards announced yesterday are a major step forward, but you can count on food and beverage makers with a vested interest in profits over progress to keep up their fight to blunt efforts to feed our nation’s neediest children better quality food.
You may remember the flurry of news coverage when Congress recently intervened to declare that pizza and French fries should remain in school meals as “vegetables.” The National Potato Council (PDF) insisted that there is “no value in limiting” foods like tater tots and French fries to only twice a week, and the National Frozen Pizza Institute protested strenuously against a rule that would limit the nutritional “credit” assigned to tomato paste. They wanted to keep a fudge factor that makes it easier for pizza to meet the new standards. Ironically, the pizza peddlers simultaneously heralded the release (PDF) of a better product that would meet the proposed standards.
It’s disheartening that the National Potato Council found more friends in Congress than did the 31 million children the National School Lunch Program serves. As a result of the lawmakers’ actions, the final standards allow fried potatoes to constitute up to 40 percent of the vegetables served during a week. But despite this industry-sponsored congressional meddling, the release of the final standards is good news.
Coming next will be new standards for foods sold in schools that aren’t part of regular meals – in other words, snacks. Big Food – fresh from its success in getting Congress to weigh in on its behalf – will surely have a lot to say about them. It’s up to us to make sure they don’t succeed in compromising our children’s future.