USDA fights child obesity with new guidelines for school meals


Related Articles

If you were anything like my 10-year-old self, school lunches were a treat — in the same way McDonald’s was a treat. I could eat all the chicken tenders and french fries I wanted without my mom’s interference. Kids these days haven’t changed, but the rules have.

On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama and agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack announced drastic changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for school meals, marking the first major changes to the breakfast and lunch programs in 15 years.

Beginning in July, breakfast and lunch served at U.S. schools will have calorie restrictions for the first time, significantly less fat and sodium, and minimum requirements for fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Yet french fries will still be served and pizza will still be counted as a vegetable (the tomato sauce, obviously) — a result of lawmakers bowing to food lobbyists back in November.

Vary the veggies and cut the calories
The number of fruit and vegetable servings throughout the week will double at breakfast and rise substantially at lunch, according to the USDA. And though french fries remain (and there are no limitations on the number of potato servings per week), meals throughout the week must fulfill a minimum number of vegetable servings from each of the five vegetable subgroups created by the USDA: dark green (e.g., broccoli, kale, spinach), orange/red (e.g., butternut squash, carrots tomatoes), legumes (e.g., black beans, lentils, split peas), starchy (e.g., corn, green peas, potatoes) and other (e.g., artichokes, mushrooms, cauliflower).

Until now, meals could contain an unlimited number of calories. In July, they’ll be cut off at 650 for kindergarten through 5th graders, 700 for 6th through 8th graders, and 850 for 9th through 12th graders. The saturated fat in breakfasts and lunches must make up less than 10% of the meal’s calories, and all meals must have zero trans fats per serving. Milk will be low-fat or non-fat, including flavored milk. That delicious vegetable known as pizza will at least have a whole-wheat crust, less sodium and must have other “vegetables” as sides. Beginning in July, half of grains offered to students have to be whole-grain rich. By 2014, all grain products will be whole-grain rich.

In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obese children and adolescents are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and diabetes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to heart problems and diabetes, they face a higher risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and the social and psychological issues that come with being the “big kid” among judgmental peers.

But will the new meal plans help?
The new guidelines were based on recommendations from experts chosen by the Institute of Medicine and aligned with the updates to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And while they are a welcomed change in a school system that was only getting 40% of recommended veggies and less than 25% of recommended whole grains to kids, we can’t help but wonder how much of the healthy food will end up in the trash.

Schools can serve fruits and vegetables all they want, but are kids going to eat the broccoli when it’s sitting on their plate next to the pizza? We can force nutritious food onto their plates, but we can’t force them to eat it. At the same time, even if they don’t eat as many of the fruits and vegetables as the USDA wants them to, at least they won’t be consuming as many calories — or as much fat and sodium — as they had under the old guidelines.

Michelle Obama explained the purpose of the new guidelines from a parent’s perspective: “As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet. And when we’re putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.”

To see examples of lunches that follow the USDA’s new guidelines, click here.

For more information, click here.