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For years, nutrition experts have criticized school food as a major contributor to increasing obesity rates and other health woes in children. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has responded by releasing new school food rules that shift the focus from processed foods high in empty calories to vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein sources including meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, and nuts.
By the numbers
Children and adolescents consume more than 35% of their calories at school, and obesity rates have more than doubled in 6- to 11-year-old children and more than tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Clearly, it's high time to push for healthier school food.
The new USDA standards apply to all food served in schools--in the cafeteria and vending machines, and at school events. This includes foods that are part of the federally reimbursable school meals program, and foods that are sold outside of federal programs, those known as "competitive foods":
Grain products must be at least 50% whole grain, list whole grains as the first ingredient, or have as a first ingredient a non-grain main food group (fruit, vegetables, dairy, or protein: meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, or seeds).
Food products must provide at least ¼ cup fruit and/or vegetables.
Foods must contain at least 10% of the daily value of certain key nutrients, including calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.
A serving of the food must have less than 35% of total calories from fat, less than 10% from saturated fat, and no trans fats.
Except for dried fruit, foods must derive less than 35% of total weight from sugar.
Snacks must have less than 230 mg of sodium per serving (which will drop to less than 200 mg after July 1, 2016), and entrees can have no more than 480 mg of sodium per serving.
Only noncaffeinated foods and beverages, except for trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine, can be served in elementary and middles schools.
After July 1, 2016, the rule regarding 10% of daily values for key nutrients will be phased out. This will prevent the qualification of nutrient-fortified, yet otherwise nutrition-poor foods, such as diet soda with added vitamins, from being considered appropriate for school food programs. Acceptable beverages include milk, 100% fruit and/or vegetable juice, and flavored, sparkling (carbonated) beverages with no more than 40 calories per 8 ounces or 60 calories per 12 ounces.
Bringing health home
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leader on children's health issues, welcomed these changes, stating "I commend the U.S. Department of Agriculture for taking this momentous step to bring healthier snacks and drinks to students across the nation." You can take steps to keep your kids healthy and fit at home, even before the new school year begins:
Swap it. Swap out crackers, cookies, and processed foods for healthier fare. Serve fruit with peanut butter and veggies with hummus to make them more appealing to young kids.
Don't buy it. While you can't always control what your kids eat away from home, if you don't buy and offer junk food, your kids won't eat it at home. Keep other healthy options, such as low-fat yogurt, dried fruit, and nuts on hand.
Lose liquid calories. Soda and drinks with added sugar contribute more than 10% of many children's daily caloric intake. Replacing these with water, sparking water, or a few ounces of 100% fruit juice mixed with sparkling water can help keep kids healthier and may minimize obesity risk.
Move it. Don't let the kids sit around playing video games all summer. Use your time off from work to visit a park and play Frisbee or basketball. Kids follow their parents' lead. If you make fitness fun, your kids will enjoy it too.
(Nutrition Standards for All Foods Sold in Schools; www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/governance/legislation/allfoods_summarychart.pdf)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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