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What's for lunch?

School lunches haven't been getting a good report card. Studies show that kids get about one third of their calories at school.

That percentage needs to decline, advises USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The U.S. is facing an obesity epidemic, and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children and our nation," he says.

According to USDA, 32% of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight or obese. One third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes later in life. Others will face obesity-related problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.

For the first time in American history, it's predicted that today's generation of children will live shorter lives than their parents as a result of obesity.

Many schools have taken the first step of removing soft drinks and calorie-laden juices and candy from vending machines.

The next step is serving more nutritious school lunches. Many school nutrition standards had not been revised for 15 years. Unfortunately, some of the free government commodities are high in salts and preservatives. Chocolate milk has just as much sugar as a Classic Coke.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 raises these standards and expands federal school lunch funds. It calls for reducing sodium and decreasing calories, fats, and trans fats. Starchy vegetables will be limited to 1 cup a week.

The USDA is seeking public input on the proposed rule through April 13, 2011. Visit www.regulations.gov to learn more.

One avenue for improving the number of servings of healthy foods is to offer more fresh foods.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act designates $40 million for farm-to-school initiatives.
Farm-to-school programs are in every state. More than 1 million kids in New York City public schools eat four times as many apples because of a partnership with state apple producers.

In northern Vermont, where 55% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, local farms are part of the solution.

The Green Mountain Farm Direct local food distribution system serves school cafeterias and senior meal sites. For every dollar spent on local foods, $3 circulates in the community.

Through the Sprouts After-School Program, school gardens have been planted in 20 Vermont schools, benefitting over 3,000 students. Other Vermont school programs feature farm field trips, where students learn where their food comes from and meet the people who grow it.

It's hard to get kids to try new foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Studies show that kids who help grow, harvest, and prepare foods are more likely to try new foods and make healthy food choices.

A 2009 Cornell University study found that preschoolers liked the taste of home-grown fruits and vegetables better if they had imaginative names. They ate 62% more carrots when they were called X-Ray Vision Carrots. The effect continued after the exotic names were discontinued.

"Cool names can make for cool foods," says Brian Wansink, lead author of the study. "Whether it's Power Peas or Dinosaur Broccoli Trees, giving a food a fun name makes kids think it'll be more fun to eat."

There's more work to be done. School kitchens need to be reequipped so cooks can prepare more healthy foods. Steaming vegetables requires a steamer. Vilsack has called for grants to help make the updates.

"Improved meal standards may present challenges for some school districts. But the new law provides important new resources, technical assistance, and flexibility to help schools raise the bar for our kids," he says."

Budget cuts threaten some of these initiatives, both on state and federal levels.

For more suggestions about how parents and school lunchroom directors can work together to serve healthier menus that kids will love to eat, visit http://www.SmarterLunchrooms.org.

You also might be interested in reading Brian Wansink's book, Mindless Eating.

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