School Lunches and Childhood Obesity: New Federal Regulations Double Vegetables and Fruits
Children who participate in school lunch programs across the United States will soon see healthier food choices in their cafeterias. Recently announced changes to government-subsidized school lunch programs will require schools to serve more fruits and green vegetables, and to reduce levels of salt and fat.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama announced the new rules for school meals during a lunch event at an elementary school in Virginia. Mrs. Obama has been working to fight the U.S. epidemic of childhood obesity by campaigning for better nutrition and more exercise for children, both in school and at home. The rules are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was signed into law by President Obama in 2011.
“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” according to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack.
- Since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled in America. One in three children in the nation is overweight or obese.
- One in four children does not participate in any type of physical activity in their free time.
- Children spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using entertainment media.
- Obese children are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and depression, in addition to high blood pressure, sleep disorders, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Half of overweight children remain overweight as adults.
Approximately 32 million children take part in school meal programs each day. Under the new rules, schools will be required to double the servings of vegetable and fruits per meal. All grains must be whole grains and only low-fat and fat-free milk will be served. There will also be limits on the amount of trans fat and salt in each meal. Additionally, for the first time, there will be age-based minimum and maximum calorie levels set per day.
These are the first changes to the regulations governing the school meal program in 15 years. Nutrition experts have praised the new rules, which are in keeping with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which is jointly published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years to reflect the most recent research in health and nutrition.
After initial opposition, the food industry is also endorsing the new rules for school lunches. An earlier version of the new regulations that tried to limit the servings of high-starch foods, like potatoes, and block school districts from counting the tomato sauce on pizza as a vegetable was overturned by Congress following lobbying by the food industry and by potato-growing states. The rules now allow potatoes and one-quarter cup of tomato sauce to count towards the vegetable requirements.
The federal government estimates that the changes will add about $3.2 billion to the annual $11 billion budget for the school meal program. The new regulations will be phased in over the next three years.
The First Lady has made a commitment to solving the problem of obesity within a generation. Her Let’s Move! initiative is focused on encouraging children to become more physically active and ensuring that they receive more nutritious food, both at home and at school. When the initiative was launched in 2010, President Obama created the first Task Force on Childhood Obesity in order to review existing programs related to child nutrition and physical fitness and to develop federal benchmarks to meet the First Lady’s goal. Providing healthy food in school was one of the benchmarks recommended by the Task Force.