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School Lunches: Trimming the Calories Not The Budget
Ketchup and pickle relish are definitely not vegetables! In 1981 the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Drug Administration (USDA) proposed reclassifying these condiments as vegetables to allow public schools to cut out a serving of vegetable from the school lunch program and save an estimated $1 billion annually in the cost of subsidized meals for low income students. Understandably, the proposal was met with outrage by parents and nutritionists alike and was never actually implemented. In January of this year the USDA met to propose the first changes it has made in 15 years to raise the nutritional standards of the school lunch. It seems that the current level of obesity (a reported 25 million children) is the push behind the change in what will be offered on school lunch menus.
When I was in elementary school, the “school lunch program” often consisted of walking the few blocks home and eating what “mom” had prepared for us. By middle school we packed our lunches and took money to buy those little cartons of milk, low-fat or regular, never chocolate. The “hot lunch program” appeared to me to be for the more affluent children and generally offered a protein, a starch, yellow and green vegetables and some type of dessert. Since the “School Lunch Act” was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946, the “hot lunch program” I thought was for the more affluent children, actually provided low cost or free lunches to these students.
Fast forward to 2011. With nearly 32 million children eating lunch at school and 11 million eating breakfast, 30% to 50% of their daily calorie intake is occurring while they are at school. The changes in the meal standards for school lunch recognize these facts and hope to address the 2005 study which found that children today will likely live two to five years less than their parents due to the level of obesity and its greater risk of developing inherent complications such as highblood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. In addition, it is believed that obesity in our children will impact on future costs of health care programs as well as our nation’s security in that many young people will be too heavy to serve in the armed services.
So what will these changes in our school lunch program look like? The proposal outlines that there will be a reduction in starchy vegetables such as peas, corn and potatoes to one cup a week. The amount of sodium in the school lunch menu will be reduced over the next ten years to establish maximum allowable levels according to the age level of the students. For example, a school lunch for a highschool student currently has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. During the next ten years this level will be reduced to less than half or 740 milligrams of sodium. The children will be offered only 1% or fat-free flavored and unflavored milk. The new standards will increase the amount of fruit being offered at breakfast and lunch and two servings of vegetables will be offered daily for lunch. Over a week’s time, schools will be required to offer a serving of green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables such as carrots or squash, beans and other vegetables. The proposal also states that one half of the grains served must be whole grains. It will minimize the use of trans fat. Finally, the proposal will establish for the first time calorie minimums and maximums graduated according to age levels.
Unlike during the “ketchup is a vegetable” era, school lunch programs meeting the new standards will be given another 6 cents per meal to add to the $2.72 they currently receive from the federal government for every child who is on the free lunch program. Those planning and preparing the school lunch menus with the new guide lines in mind are going to have to become very creative. Healthier is generally more costly and unfortunately, many children are not used to eating a healthy school lunch.
As teachers, we need to be concerned about our student’s nutritional intake during school lunch time. Eating healthier meals will not only impact on the problem of obesity in our students, but it also can have an effect on their academic performance. A high fat diet has been found to reduce cognitive abilities and affect short term memory. Though we may not be able to control what our students eat through the school lunch program, we can model good eating habits ourselves. We can discuss the weekly school lunch menus with our students and recommend making healthy choices from it. When a special celebration is organized in theclassroom we can determine what kinds of food will be offered and limit it to low fat, low sodium foods and/or include fruits and vegetables as the snack choices. We can teach them that French fries are loaded with unhealthy fat and that ketchup is definitely not a vegetable!