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School Meals Need to Get Healthier: Report

New recommendations tackle obesity epidemic in U.S.,,

TUESDAY, Oct. 20 (HealthDay News) -- New guidelines are needed to improve the diets of U.S. school children, finds a new government report that would set maximum calorie counts for school breakfasts and lunches.

School meals should have less salt; more vegetables, fruits and whole grains; skim and low-fat milk, and other dairy products, the report from the Institute of Medicine says. It called on the federally funded National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to update its current policies.

"The program was due for a revision," said IOM committee chairwoman Dr. Virginia A. Stallings, a professor and director of the Nutrition Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The committee's job was to make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the school meal program, Stallings said. "We expect that they will take this information and revise the program," she said.

"These recommendations will become regulations, and schools are required to follow them if they are going to get reimbursed for school meals," she said.

The IOM recommendations would bring school meals in line with the latest dietary guidelines and reference intakes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The current standards for school meals are based on the 1995 dietary guidelines and the 1989 recommended dietary allowances.

Increased funding will be needed to implement the changes because of the higher cost of vegetables and whole-grain foods, the report noted. Also, greater federal meal reimbursement, capital investment and additional training of food service personnel will be required for the recommendations to succeed.

But these changes are needed to assure parents that schools are providing healthful, satisfying meals, Stallings said.

"The school meal programs were established when we were worried about children being hungry and undernourished," she said. "Now we have to worry both about that safety net for children who may not have enough food, but also balance it with a food supply that will prevent the school meals from contributing to the obesity problem."

In the past, there had only been a minimum calorie amount, Stallings said. "What the committee is now recommending is a minimum and a maximum," she said.

The report on healthy school meals suggests lunches contain no more than 650 calories for students in grades kindergarten through five; 700 calories for children in grades six to eight, and 850 for those in grades nine to 12. Breakfast calories should not exceed 500, 550 and 600, respectively, for these grade groups.

To ease the adjustment to lower salt meals, the report calls for reducing sodium over the next decade from today's average of 1,600 milligrams per lunch to 740 milligrams.

In addition, breakfasts should contain one cup of fruit, and lunches for grades nine to 12 should also contain one cup of fruit. No more than half of the fruit should come from juice, the report says.

Vegetable offerings should increase to three-quarters of a cup a day for grades kindergarten through eight, and one cup a day for grades nine to 12. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, should be served less often, and at least half a cup each of green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes should be provided each week, the report said.

For grains, half of the breads and pasta should be whole grain, Stallings said. Milk served with school meals should be skim or 1 percent fat, she added.

Meat with lunches should be kept to about two ounces for all grades, but can be higher for students in high school. For breakfast, meat should be kept to about one ounce a day for children in kindergarten through grade eight, and two ounces for high school students, the report noted.

The National School Lunch Program is available in 99 percent of U.S. public schools and in 83 percent of private and public schools combined. The School Breakfast Program is available in 85 percent of public schools.

About 30.6 million school children participated in the school lunch program in 2007, and 10.1 million children had school breakfasts. In 2007, schools in the program served about 5.1 billion lunches and 1.7 billion breakfasts, according to the report.

Stallings hopes the recommendations will filter down to the meals parents serve at home. "I do believe that parents will be able to use some of this to talk about the kinds of fruits and vegetables they should be serving at home and other recommendations that are easily implemented, like going to skim or low-fat milk and thinking about sodium both in cooking and table salt," she said.

Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said "this update to school nutrition standards is timely, and most welcome."

School nutrition standards were originally devised to protect children from malnutrition and want, Katz noted.

"But in an age of epidemic childhood obesity, when children are far more likely to get too many calories than too few, and when more and more succumb to what was called 'adult onset' diabetes just a generation ago, the time-honored school food standards are clearly obsolete," he said.

More information

For more on healthful eating, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SOURCES: Virginia A. Stallings, M.D., Jean A. Cortner Endowed Chair, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology, director, Nutrition Center, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Oct. 20, 2009, Institute of Medicine, report, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children

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