Each day the National School Lunch program feeds more than thirty million children in grades K-12 and while the composition of the meal is guided by very specific nutrition guidelines school lunch has been the target of much criticism. Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new regulations to update the meal pattern. Starting with the 2012-13 school year the new standards will be phased into schools over a three year period.
The new guidelines are the result of the growing concerns about childhood obesity and an increasing number of families who struggle to get access to enough food. As a result of this concern the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in December of 2010, focused on shifting food choices to not only boost nutrition but to keep calories in balance. With the growing incidence of childhood obesity experts project that nearly one in three children are at risk for diseases like diabetes and heart disease, with some projections indicating that children will get these diseases at earlier ages than preceding generations.
In addition, in 2010 more than seventeen million US households, with an estimated sixteen million children in these households, struggled to put enough food on the table. School lunch can provide the nutrition these children might otherwise be missing.
The guidelines for the new school lunch program, which are designed to be age specific, include the following broad recommendations.
- Fruits and vegetables must be offered daily
- At least half of the grains offered must be whole grains with a progression to all grains must be whole grains by the school year 2014-15
- Fat-free (unflavored or flavored) and unflavored low-fat milk only
- Calories are provided by age, with an indication of minimum and maximum levels
- Saturated and trans fats are limited
- Sodium reductions are phased in over the three year implementation period
- Weekly meat/meat alternate ranges are provided
In addition to these guidelines, schools will receive an increase in their dollar allocation to help them as they make these changes. Schools will also have access to more materials, both for employees and students, to help them change how they prepare food, to help them involve students in menu planning and to help them provide more education around the healthier offerings.
School lunch is an essential part of children’s learning day so making the meal more nutritious is one way to help them fuel their bodies and their brains.
You can see the meal patterns for the new school lunch requirements before they are implemented.