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New federal nutrition standards mean healthier school lunches

Good news for children's health: With the start of the 2012-13 school year, kids across the country are eating healthier school meals. That's because the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is coming into effect. The law was signed by President Obama in 2010 to update nutrition standards for the meals served at school and bring them in line with the current evidence-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It's the first update the school-lunch nutrition standards have had in 15 years, and it applies not just to food sold in cafeterias but also to the offerings in school vending machines and to food items sold at fundraisers held during the school day.

A press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest gives more details:

As they return back to school, students will get twice the amount of vegetables and fruits on their meal trays, as well as more whole grains, and less salt and unhealthy fats. The updated school meal standards, unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January, have been highly praised by health and education groups, including the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The standards set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger.

School meals were originally intended to prevent hunger in school-aged kids. With around one in five children (.pdf) now living in a food-insecure household, hunger is still a serious concern. But at the same time, one in three children are obese, so schools must also be conscious of not serving meals that will promote unhealthy weight gain.

One possible challenge for school cafeterias, described in a recent New York Times article, is that the shift toward more fruits and vegetables and away from high-fat items such as deep-fried foods may make it harder for school meals to meet minimum calorie standards. But schools have an incentive to get things right: starting Oct. 1, they'll receive an extra six cents per healthy lunch they serve, a change which would add an estimated $1.5 billion to school lunch funding over the next five years if all schools met the new standards immediately.

Previously: Lucile Packard joins forces with Ravenswood School District to feed families during the summer breakPoll shows strong support for extending national nutrition standards beyond the school cafeteria and Better school lunches – in China
Photo by Martin Cathrae

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