MANHATTAN, Kan. – Recent changes in school lunch menus required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are generating discussion in Kansas’ and the nation’s school districts.
“The 2012 changes in the menus are intended to address concerns about children’s nutrition, health and obesity that can lead to chronic diseases,” said Sandy Procter, K-State Research and Extension nutrition specialist, and state coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education and Family Nutrition Programs.
“People have been complaining about school lunch for years,” said Procter, a registered dietitian. She noted complaints often focused on school lunch menus with too many high fat and fried foods, lack of age-appropriate portions, and less costly foods rather than nutrient-dense foods that could cost more, but contribute to health.
“These are the first changes to the school lunch guidelines in many years and, in many districts, the difference is significant. In other places, voluntary improvement has been gradual over time, so students and parents see little change this year.”
Procter noted the 2012 changes to school lunch menus are research-based and intended to address specific nutrition and health issues, including:
* Age-appropriate portions for three groups: Kindergarten through eight-year-olds; nine to 12-year-olds, and high school students.
* Health-promoting foods, including lean proteins, low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
She said the move toward standard portions helps youth meet nutritional requirements for health and become more familiar with a standard portion. Youth will be more able to choose an appropriate portion when at home or on their own, and place a cap on calories to learn to manage a healthy weight.
Expanding the variety of foods offered meets Department of Health and Human Services’ and the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but does add to the cost, which is supported with additional funding, according to Proctor.
If children and youth are complaining to parents about not getting enough to eat, they may simply not be choosing to eat foods offered, said Procter, who noted that youth who are not familiar with fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads, crackers and cereals, or dairy products served may initially shy away from them.
While adjusting to the changes will likely be a gradual process, many food service professionals report students making the adjustments fairly quickly.
“Youth who eat an increased variety of foods can begin enjoying health benefits – increased energy, greater ability to manage a healthy weight, more restful sleep, healthy skin and improved overall resistance to illness are possible examples – almost immediately,” she said.
School lunch or breakfast menus may not suit everyone, said Procter, who noted that some children occasionally prefer a sack lunch from home.
She also advised parents to plan snacks to fill the gaps between meals, and indicated a preference for health-promoting snacks, rather than pre-packaged snack foods that introduce extra calories, fat or sodium unnecessarily.
If, for example, students will be staying for after-school activities or sports, Procter advised checking with the school office for a list of allowable approved snacks that can be sent with students.
Checking with the school is an essential step, as many of today’s youth are allergic – or critically allergic -- to everyday foods, such as a peanut butter sandwich, she said.
A whole grain granola bar, fruit, cheese and crackers are shelf-stable, non-perishable snacks that will fill the gap between meals, she said.
While parents and nutritionists support youth coming home hungry so they’ll be ready to eat a variety of foods offered for the evening meal, Procter recommended keeping a bowl of pre-washed and cut vegetables and low-fat dip in the refrigerator as a ready snack to take the edge of the appetite, but not spoil the upcoming meal.
“If we provide healthful options, like fruit and vegetables, snacks can help kids meet nutrition needs,” said Procter, who noted that updated school breakfast guidelines will be introduced in 2013.
More information about changes in the school lunch program is available at Secretary Vilsack Statement on Passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
More information on choosing and using a variety of health-promoting foods, and managing family meals and snacks successfully is available at K-State Research and Extension offices throughout the state and online and Extension Human Nutrition.