Politics have invaded the school cafeteria in an unprecendented way this fall as schools began implementation of the new nutrition standards mandated in the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010.
If you believe some media reports, kids all over the US, particularly athletes, are fading away in classrooms and on the practice field, famished from a tray of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat or skim milk. Some kids in Kansas even made a video about it.
The new meal standards limit calories on high school students to 850, middle school students to 700, and elementary school students to 650 for lunch. That’s one-third of the calorie needs for kids in each age group. And that is just the planned USDA reimbursable school lunch – not the a la carte items, which students can buy freely if they are still hungry or heading out to practice later that day (like another carton of milk, a yogurt and fruit parfait, a bag of baked chips, etc.)
Yes, the new meal patterns call for kids to get more fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on deep green and orange varieties. Yes, the meal patterns call for half the grains on the tray to be whole grains. Yes, the new meal patterns call for the meats or meat alternative to be lean and low in saturated fat. Yes, the new meal patterns call for the entire meal to meet calorie limits, as well as limits on sodium. The new meal pattern probably sounds familiar because it meets the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Finally. After 15 years.
You’ve heard me say this before: We have to improve our standards for acceptable food for children and youth. The infographic posted here illustrates that we as parents and students would not be complaining about the new meal standards if the foods were – well, to put it simply – high in fat, salt and sugar, and low in nutrient density – and what kids are used to eating. But throw some roasted delicata squash and a spinach and cranberry salad next to that baked chicken and applesauce, and look out, we’re starving kids to death. And wasting food, because they just throw it away.
We must, as parents , grandparents, aunts, uncles and caregivers in general introduce our kids to vegetables and fruits at home, at church, at school, at preschool, and on playgrounds. This takes time and patience. Kids (and many adults!) need to TRY foods (not just see them, but try them) up to 12 times before they will be accepted.
According to Sheilah Davidson of School Food FOCUS, a national initiative that works with the nation’s largest school districts to help them procure locally sourced and wholesome foods, the school systems who are having an easier time with acceptance from students started introducing healthier meals several years ago, like Wake County Public Schools did. The changes to school meals here in Wake County seem a lot less drastic to our kids, because the changes aren’t that different from what they’ve been seeing for the past several years. For school systems that went from pizza and fries to 2/3 vegetables and fruit, I can imagine there is a bit of a backlash.
But are those isolated cases reason to throw the baby out with the bath water? I think not. What do you think?