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6 Tests School Cafeterias Fail

Brad Farra - Monday, October 26, 2009

Take the time to pack your child's lunch.

The National Institute of Medicine (IOM) takes issue with 16-year-old rules that dictate nutrition in your kid's school lunch.

How old are federal school lunch guidelines?

So old that there is no requirement to include whole grains. So old that there is no standard at all for sodium content. So old that -- get this -- school lunches must deliver a minimum number of calories, with no upper limit.

It's been at least 16 years since the federal government last updated the guidelines school cafeterias must follow when preparing school lunches and breakfasts (30 years by some counts); since the programs began, 219 billion lunches have been served -- with few of them meeting nutritional requirements many parents consider healthy. The National Institute of Medicine has distilled the problems with the outdated system into six basic recommendations:

  1. Fruits: Whereas schools can now make fruit available to qualify for funding, the IOM recommends fruit be made a required part of every breakfast served.
  2. Vegetables: Whereas schools can now offer fruits or vegetables to meet federal guidelines, the IOM recommends that schools provide two servings of vegetables daily, and that the offerings must include dark green and bright orange vegetables and legumes -- presumably to counteract the tendency to offer America's favorite vegetable, the potato, too often.
  3. Grains and Breads: Whereas schools can now offer any kind of grains, the IOM recommends that at least half of grains served be whole grains.
  4. Milk: Whereas milk is now available with a variety of fat-contents and in a variety of flavors, the IOM recommends that only fat-free and low-fat milks be served, and that the only flavored varieties be fat-free.
  5. Calories: Whereas now school lunches and breakfasts must meet a minimum calorie level, the IOM recommends that offerings deliver calories within a range that includes both a minimum and a maximum level. Saturated fat content should also be minimized.
  6. Sodium: Whereas there is now no specific recommendation about sodium content, the IOM recommends that school cafeterias dramatically decrease sodium content to a new low level by 2020.

These guidelines spell out how low-income children should be fed, because the federal government subsidizes the lunches for 30.5 million children and breakfasts for 10.5 million. But these guidelines also set the benchmark for all food served in school lunch cafeterias, so the guidelines affect the nutrition available to children of all income levels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers these school meal nutrition programs, seems to have endorsed the IOM's findings, noting that "this trend unfortunately puts children at increased risk for a variety of obesity-related conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure." The nutritional guidelines are up for Congressional review.

By Dan Shapley of the Daily Green

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