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The School Day Just Got Healthier!

Nutrition, Youth | November, 16 2012

By: Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, Bickford Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont and Member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition’s Science Board

*Jennifer Taylor (Master’s degree candidate at the University of Vermont’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences) contributed to this blog.

This fall, school nutrition programs underwent major changes that improve the nutritional quality of school lunches nationwide.  The media has been filled with stories about the new menus, which feature more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in items such as sweet potato fries, whole-wheat tortillas and black bean and corn salsa. These improvements to school meals represent a victory for health and nutrition advocates aiming to address the high rates of childhood overweight and obesity in the United States.  Nevertheless, students, parents, teachers and school administrators may be anxious about the changes. How have school meals changed and are students going to accept the new menus?

The changes to school meals were directed by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is the first law in over 15 years to mandate significant improvements to nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The final rule was released in January 2012 and directed changes to school meals for the 2012-2013 school year.  Additional changes will affect meal patterns for breakfast and lunch in the years that follow.

What’s different about school lunch this year? First, the calorie content of meals is lower. Calorie ranges were established for specific age and grade groups, replacing the previous meal standards that only had calorie minimums (but no maximums).  This fall schools made changes that included eliminating trans fats, and offering only fat-free and low-fat milk (flavored milk must be fat-free). The sodium content of meals will be gradually reduced over the coming years. At the same time, the nutrient density of meals will increase by offering more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and requiring all children to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch meal. As a whole, the changes to school meals promote a diet that can reduce the incidence of childhood obesity and lower children’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure by better aligning school meals with the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Students may need some time to adjust to the new look of school lunch. While school nutrition programs may initially see increased plate waste, it is important to keep in mind that multiple exposures to a new food may be needed before children accept it. With close to 32 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program each day, healthier school lunches model better food choices for a large number of children. At a time when one in three American children is overweight or obese, our nation’s transition to healthier school meals is timely. Improving the quality of what children eat today is an important step in ensuring better health and a brighter future.

To learn more about the changes to school meals, take a look at the School Day Just Got Healthier Toolkit.

Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD is a Bickford Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont and a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition’s Science Board. Jennifer Taylor (master’s degree candidate at the University of Vermont’s School of Nutrition), also contributed to this blog.

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