April 24, 2018
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What changes are coming in the school lunch line?

By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

You’ll be happy to know that tomato paste can qualify as a vegetable serving and potatoes are not restricted under the new rules for the government-subsidized National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs announced last week by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He stated that “improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids.”

“When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future.”

The proposed rules to update the nutrition standards for meals served are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 13, 2010. The rules are the first changes to appear in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program.

About 32 million children participate in the school meal programs each day in this country. The intent of making the rule changes is to help combat the growing problem of childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Many children consume as many as half of their daily calories at school.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children age 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents age 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water or a combination of these factors. Obesity is defined as having excess body fat. Overweight and obesity are the result of “caloric imbalance” — too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed — and are affected by genetic, behavioral and environmental factors.

Changes will include doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables that children are served in school and require that all grains served be whole grains. Milk served must be low-fat or fat-free and for the first time limits have been set on the levels of sodium and trans fats that can be served to children. Calories will be limited based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion control.

The changes are based on the recommendations released in October 2009 by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine. The new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years. School districts will receive an additional 6 cents per meal if they meet the new standards.

Will these changes really have an impact on the overweight and obesity levels of our children? A study that appeared in the January issue of Sociology of Education suggests that obesity is not linked to junk food in schools. Communities all over the country are banning the sale of sweets and salty snacks in public schools in order to combat obesity. To look at this issue researchers at Pennsylvania State University tracked the body mass index of 19,450 students in fifth through eighth grade. In fifth grade, 59 percent of the children attended a school where candy, snacks or sugar-sweetened beverages were sold. By eighth grade, that number rose to 86 percent.

The researchers compared children’s weight in schools where junk food was sold and in schools where it was banned. No matter how the researcher looked at the data, they could find no correlation at all between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salt snacks were available for purchase. The lead author, Jennifer Van Hook, theorized, “that because food preferences are established early in life, the problem of childhood obesity cannot be placed solely in the hands of schools.”

USDA is seeking comment from the public on the proposed rules through April 13, 2012. To review or comment on the proposal, visit regulations.gov.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.

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