A new approach to school lunches

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School Food - Chicken NuggetsThis past year has not been a great one for the National School Lunch program. The new government requirements for school lunch composition were met with so much resistance that some have already been reversed, specifically the requirements for less salt and only whole grains in lunches. However, lunches brought from home may not be so great either, according to new research that found that meals brought from home are less nourishing than those found in school cafeterias.

However, the majority of public school children do not bring lunches from home. There are about 50 million children attending public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, and about 32 million of those participate in the school lunch program. About 60 percent of those children get the majority of their daily calories from school lunch.

With the new Federal requirements, there have been multiple studies over the past year claiming to have found that with the introduction of these new standards, plate waste has increased in many schools. However, there have also been studies claiming to have found no increase in plate waste and an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, as Jane Brody discusses in her article in the New York Times Science Section.

So who should we believe and what s really going on in schools? Well, it seems like we don t really know all the details but we do know that something needs to change with how we approach school food. As Brody says, Few question the need to do a better job of teaching children to eat and enjoy the foods that are best for them. Yet lessons on nutrition and hands-on experience with wholesome foods often fall by the wayside in busy households and in schools that now spend more time teaching to the test than fostering healthy bodies and minds.

Experts say there are ways to remedy the state of school food, such as incorporating food into academic lessons. Children tend to eat foods that are familiar to them so teaching them about the foods and then serving that food in the cafeteria will make children more likely to choose to eat that food. Schools can also make school food more appealing to children either by giving the foods creative names or by presenting them in fun ways. Food service personnel should be taught to encourage children to try the new foods. Efforts should be made to teach parents how to prepare healthy lunches. Parents should be encouraged to take their children shopping with them, allowing the children to choose what fruits and vegetables they want to try. Children should also then be involved in the preparation of those foods.

So, education and presentation are both very important in the efforts to ensure that children consume a healthy diet. But the federal guidelines also must be reconsidered. Nutrition is an ever changing field, with studies coming out every day attacking or praising certain nutrients. The government must take these new studies into account when designing the school food standards.

Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health when commenting on a recent study that found a lack of relationship between any specific type of saturated fat, or for the totality of saturated fat intake, and CVD risk says, The single macronutrient approach is outdated. I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients.

ACSH s Ariel Savransky says, Instead of focusing on single nutrients in school lunches, the government and our schools should teach students about consuming a healthy diet overall, not about limiting certain food groups. They should be taught about portion control and exercise including particularly the apparently surprising fact that computer and video-game time does not contribute to a healthier lifestyle and embrace the everything in moderation approach. These are the lessons that our young people need to learn at an early age so that they are given the tools to develop healthy eating habits that will carry over into adulthood. And these lessons should come not only from school but also from parents, who should play an important role in teaching their children about nutrition.