FRIDAY, May 13 (HealthDay News) -- School lunches have long served as the punch line of jokes, prompting chuckles about "mystery meat" and angry lunch ladies.
But no one's laughing these days, with childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions in the United States. Instead, parents are looking to schools to help keep their kids fit and healthy through proper nutrition.
"Five days out of the week, many kids are getting two of their three daily meals at school," said Marjorie Nolan, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "School districts have an opportunity to teach children how to eat, as well as providing healthier food."
School nutritionists have for years made quiet progress in improving the healthiness of the food that's served to millions of kids for breakfast and lunch. But now they have the backing of the federal government, with the passage in December of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to set standards for food available to kids at school, and offers extra money to schools that meet those standards.
Childhood obesity affects nearly one of every five American kids 6 to 19 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate has risen dramatically, more than tripling over the past 30 years.
The USDA wasted no time flexing its new muscles, releasing in January a proposed set of rules that would drastically improve school meals by reducing fat and sodium while increasing whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The federal law also will require the agency to create nutritional standards for so-called "competitive" foods -- the stuff kids can buy in vending machines or at school stores, outside the normal school lunch program.
"These steps are being taken very seriously by the USDA and the government," Nola
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