Forge ahead with school meal guidelines

09/28/2012 09:27:00 AM
Ray Gilmer

Ray Gilmer, United Fresh Produce AssociationRay Gilmer, United Fresh Produce AssociationThe new school year is bringing big changes in lunchrooms across America.

Schools are implementing new nutrition standards that double the amount of fruits and vegetables served to 32 million students through the National School Lunch Program, the first such improvement in more than 15 years.

Produce industry companies are partnering with schools across the country to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals, so this is a clear victory for our industry and nutrition advocates.

It’s also a milestone, and we can proudly say our industry and our nutrition and school partners are helping to dramatically improve the nourishment of millions of children every day.

The impact goes beyond the school lunchroom. Many of these kids come from households where fruits and vegetables aren’t part of daily diets.

They’re discovering new flavors that they can ask for in future meals. For them, this modern school nutrition standard is a great step toward providing a foundation for healthy eating for the rest of their lives.

As big as these changes are, there are bound to be some growing pains that come with this transformative lunch standard. You’ve probably seen news coverage, including in The Packer, about the new school lunch standard coming under fire. Critics say there aren’t enough calories to feed active, growing kids.

The fact that schools have to manage the transition to the new lunches is expected. After all, many schools hadn’t updated their lunch standards in 15 years. Schools have always had to adjust their lunch offerings (as well as breakfast and snack offerings) based on kids’ age, weight and activity levels.

Lorelei DiSogra, United Fresh’s vice president for nutrition and health, and our industry’s leading advocate for greater fruit and vegetable servings in school meals, reminds me that school lunches were long overdue for an alignment with the federal government’s dietary guidance.

Think about how many millions of kids’ lunches have been served that were nowhere close to the nutritional goals recommended by the government and national nutrition authorities.

These new standards were developed with the input from a two-year study by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM’s 2009 report, “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children,” recommended that USDA adopt standards that would:

 

  • increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains;
  • set minimum and maximum levels of calories; and
  • reduce the amount of sodium and saturated fat.

 

What’s more, the USDA’s message to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” is one of the key consumer messages of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Recognizing that on average most Americans, including children, eat less than half of the daily amount of fruits and vegetables recommended for good health, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines provide a clear, compelling call to add significantly more servings of fruits and vegetables. This advice applies to all meals, including school breakfast and school lunch.

Anyone who’s still upset about these new, more nutritious school lunches should consider the alternative.

With more than 12 million American kids ranked as obese, the health implications are alarming.

Just last week, a comprehensive review of existing research, published in the British Medical Journal, finds that obese children have higher blood pressure, troubling cholesterol profiles, more metabolic dysfunction and thicker heart muscles than lean kids of the same age.

With so much at stake, does anyone really think we should backtrack on these new lunch standards?

United Fresh applauds USDA, nutrition leaders and schools across the nation for championing these more healthful school lunches. Without a doubt, this is a big change, and with change come challenges. School nutrition experts at 100,000 schools in the U.S. are professionals. They will work to find solutions that keep kids fed while meeting the modern standards.

Let’s not lose sight of what we’ve accomplished, our commitment for a healthier America, and the wellbeing of millions of children who can live longer, healthier lives thanks to what we’re feeding them at school today.

Ray Gilmer is vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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