Developing healthier meals mandated by new federal regulations while meeting kids’ taste expectations and staying on
budget presents an ever-growing challenge for school officials.
As U.S. children return to school this fall they will begin seeing changes to the foods and beverages served in school cafeterias thanks to a provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Act, which President Obama signed into law on Dec. 10, 2010, sets standards for the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program and increases funding and training to schools to provide healthier meals to students. The last update to the standards was more than 15 years ago, and the new rules will affect about 32 million students who participate in the lunch program and almost 13 million students who participate in the breakfast program (USDA, 2012a; USDA, 2012b). This article will provide general information about the new school feeding program standards, which were established with the intention of addressing the nutritional needs of children, and other approaches to encourage children to make healthful food choices.
Are School Lunches Making Kids Fat?
The final rule that updates the meal patterns and nutrition standards for the lunch and breakfast programs was issued on Jan. 25, 2012, and it requires schools to make significant changes to what they serve students. These include increasing the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk and reducing the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in meals, all while meeting the nutritional needs of children (Federal Register, 2012).
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture developed the requirements based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and recommendations from scientific experts at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies with expectations to improve the diet and health of children and help reduce the numbers of overweight and obese children (Federal Register, 2012). About 17% of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2–19 years (12.5 million) are obese, and the prevalence of obesity among this group has almost tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2012).
Everything from children’s lack of physical activity to aggressive advertising by food marketers has been blamed on the rise of childhood overweight and obesity. In recent years, school meals have come under attack as well; there is concern about the nutritional integrity of school meals, and debate continues as to whether or not school meals contribute to obesity and if so, by how much. One of the more recent studies conducted on the issue concluded that a number of factors, including consuming school lunches, may contribute to childhood obesity (Eagle et al., 2010; University of Michigan, 2011).