A new report calls for pervasive changes in the meals served to school children, including offering kids a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, serving 1% and skim milk instead of whole and 2% milk, and limiting sodium and calories.
These changes could cost more, but the investment would be worth it because it could help improve kids' eating habits and overall health, says Virginia Stallings, chairman of the expert panel that prepared the Institute of Medicine report. She's a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.
For many families and school food service personnel, these recommendations may seem "like a common-sense approach to feeding children," Stallings says, but the current recommendations for planning school meals are outdated and needed to be updated with ones based on the latest science. These recommendations are designed to bring school meals closer to current government dietary guidelines.
About 31 million school children (about 60%) get their lunch at school every day; about 10 million eat school breakfast.
The recommendations say schools should:
•Increase the amount of vegetables to ¾ cup a day at lunch for kindergarten through eighth grade and one cup a day for grades 9 through 12.
•Increase to at least ½ cup of these every week: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash) and beans.
•Decrease the amount of starchy veggies such as potatoes.
•Offer more fruit at breakfast.
•Serve children 1 cup of 1% or skim milk at lunch and breakfast every day. This helps keep the saturated (animal) fat content of meals below 10% of total calories.
•Make sure at least half or more of grains and breads are whole-grain.
•Reduce sodium in meals over the next 10 years. Currently a high school lunch has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Through incremental changes, that amount should eventually be lowered to about 740 milligrams.
The report says the cost for breakfast might increase by about 18%, largely because of the increase in fruit intake. Lunch costs might go up by about 4%.
The recommendations will go to Congress to be used in creating legislation for child nutrition programs.
USA Today has contributed to the report.