School Meals Need to Get Healthier: Report

TUESDAY, Oct. 20 (HealthDay News) -- New guidelines are needed to improve the diets of U.S. school children, finds a new government report that would set maximum calorie counts for school breakfasts and lunches.

School meals should have less salt; more vegetables, fruits and whole grains; skim and low-fat milk, and other dairy products, the report from the Institute of Medicine says. It called on the federally funded National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to update its current policies.

"The program was due for a revision," said IOM committee chairwoman Dr. Virginia A. Stallings, a professor and director of the Nutrition Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The committee's job was to make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the school meal program, Stallings said. "We expect that they will take this information and revise the program," she said.

"These recommendations will become regulations, and schools are required to follow them if they are going to get reimbursed for school meals," she said.

The IOM recommendations would bring school meals in line with the latest dietary guidelines and reference intakes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current standards for school meals are based on the 1995 dietary guidelines and the 1989 recommended dietary allowances.

Increased funding will be needed to implement the changes because of the higher cost of vegetables and whole-grain foods, the report noted. Also, greater federal meal reimbursement, capital investment and additional training of food service personnel will be required for the recommendations to succeed.

But these changes are needed to assure parents that schools are providing healthful, satisfying meals, Stallings said.

"The school meal programs were established when we were worried about children being hungry and undernourished," she said. "Now we have to worry both about that safety net for children who may not have enough food, but also balance it with a food supply that will prevent the school meals from contributing to the obesity problem."

In the past, there had only been a minimum calorie amount, Stallings said. "What the committee is now recommending is a minimum and a maximum," she said.

The report on healthy school meals suggests lunches contain no more than 650 calories for students in grades kindergarten through five; 700 calories for children in grades six to eight, and 850 for those in grades nine to 12. Breakfast calories should not exceed 500, 550 and 600, respectively, for these grade groups.

To ease the adjustment to lower salt meals, the report calls for reducing sodium over the next decade from today's average of 1,600 milligrams per lunch to 740 milligrams.

In addition, breakfasts should contain one cup of fruit, and lunches for grades nine to 12 should also contain one cup of fruit. No more than half of the fruit should come from juice, the report says.

Vegetable offerings should increase to three-quarters of a cup a day for grades kindergarten through eight, and one cup a day for grades nine to 12. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, should be served less often, and at least half a cup each of green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes should be provided each week, the report said.

For grains, half of the breads and pasta should be whole grain, Stallings said. Milk served with school meals should be skim or 1 percent fat, she added.

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