Grilled cheese on a pretzel bun; maple burst pancakes; cold nachos; breaded chicken nuggets — these are some of the lunch options in school cafeterias across the country. Following streamlined government regulations aimed to make school lunches healthier, some parents are left scratching their heads wondering if anything has changed.
In January 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals that should result in healthier meals for kids across the nation. The new meal requirements raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and are expected to improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million children who participate in school meal programs every school day.
The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid Act, which was championed by the First Lady as part of her Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law by President Barack Obama. The new standards align school meals with the latest nutrition science and the real-world circumstances of America’s schools, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA indicates that there are a few main components of the new lunch and breakfast standards:
Offer students both fruits and vegetables every day of the week.
Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods.
Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties.
Limit calories based on the age of the children being served to ensure proper portion size.
Increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
These changes are not perfect, but many believe they are a step in the right direction. Some parents, however, feel the new stipulations are not stringent enough, particularly when it comes to work-arounds for some of the new policies.
Sodium content is another bone of contention. Research indicates that lowering sodium levels can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension. To adhere to the new lunch program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards say schools will have to cut sodium in lunches by more than 50 percent within 10 years.
According to the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, elementary school lunches contain roughly 1,300 mg of sodium. The goal is to lower that to 1,230 mg by the 2014/2015 school year, gradually dropping to 935 mg by 2017 with a final target of 640 mg by the 2022/2023 school year. Many parents and health experts feel sodium levels are not going down fast enough.
The new plan will also extend nutrition standards outside of the cafeteria. Foods and beverages sold in vending machines and through other venues on campus must also be modified to adhere to a healthy diet.
Canadians may learn from the trials in the United States should they develop their own school lunch programs. Canada remains the only westernized nation without a federally funded school food program. The reason Canada has not developed a national school food strategy (or even a coordinated provincial and territorial program) is that no single ministry takes responsibility for food. Students can bring their own lunches or choose among fast food in cafeterias or snacks from vending machines.
Although many changes have been put in place to make school lunches healthier, not all parents think these changes are sufficient.