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New Nutrition Standards for U.S. Schools

New Nutrition Standards for U.S. Schools

Buffered by a signature Obama administration goal to fight childhood obesity, the final piece of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was implemented on January 25th.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the final set of nutrition standards enacted include:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

While these changes are a substantial improvement, there are still some items that were not excised from the menu.  Although Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, described the menu as the “best ever”, she is still disappointed that Congress did not allow for the removal of french fries from school menus, nor the designation of pizza as a vegetable.

Bettina Elias Siegel points out “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of the new food standards.  On the “Good” side, the new guidelines is that it brings caloric requirements more in line with acceptable levels for children and eschews the “nutrient standard” system for determining school lunch offerings, which included foods that did not necessarily draw nutrients from the right foods.  In the “Bad” category, she highlights how Congress will have a difficult time funding the program.  For the “Ugly” dimension of the new rules, Elias Siegel points to the continued role of the food lobby in keeping foods like french fries and pizza on menus.

Writing in the Atlantic, Marion Nestle applauds the new standards, but observes that the work to improve child nutrition is not done.  “Good work. Now let’s get busy on the next challenges:

  • Set nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools — those sold outside of the lunch program as snacks and meal replacements.
  • Teach kids where food comes from.
  • Teach kids to cook.”

While these new measures take aim at identifiable problems with child nutrition, other factors may continue to influence strategies for keeping kids healthy.  A recent study from Penn State suggests that there is “no correlation at all between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salty snacks were available.”  There is also the possibility that the lack of choice in food will create a backlash from children who may not eat as much healthy food if they feel restricted from their own food choices.

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