Easing of School-Meal Rules Spotlights Kids’ Nutrition

An easing of school lunch regulations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is raising some concerns among dietitians that the rollback will send the wrong message about kids’ nutritional needs.

Newly appointed U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a new interim rule this month that suspends the strictest sodium-reduction target and lowers whole-grain requirements. The rollback also allows for 1 percent fat-flavored milk, instead of fat-free flavored milk, back into school cafeterias nationwide. The new rule will take effect during the 2017-2018 school year.

Whole Grains

The pullback on whole grains “will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products,” the USDA states. Whole grains provide kids and adults with B vitamins, minerals and fiber to help them feel full longer. Schools can use grain products that are a blend of whole-grains and more refined enriched grains, allowing for baked goods that may be tastier for kids.

The proposed changes effectively eases stricter rules set under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that were championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The program was part of her campaign to fight childhood obesity.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” USDA Secretary Perdue said in a news release. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”

The USDA’s interim rule is designed to provide “regulatory flexibility” for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, which are federally assisted programs that serve nutritionally balanced, reduced-cost or free lunches to children. Some farmers and school groups have lobbied for lunch reform, claiming the current rules are overly restrictive and costly to implement.

Fruits and Vegetables

Other key requirements under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act enacted under the Obama Administration were left intact, such as offering fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components, and preparing meals using food products or ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving.

“The biggest influencer to a child’s eating habits are parents, teachers and caregivers,” says Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida. “If the child observes the adult figure practicing healthy lifestyle habits, the child is more likely to do the same.”

In 2013, Baptist Health South Florida revamped the children’s menus at all four of its Early Learning Centers by eliminating the use of highly processed or canned foods and replacing them with fresh foods, Castro says.

The children have adapted well to the healthier menus, she said. They serve themselves and share family-style meals together with their teacher. If meals are colorful and presented in an attractive matter, children will be more likely to eat them, she added.

“Children (at the Early Learning Centers) no longer receive fruit juices or packaged fruit cups, instead they get freshly cut fruit,” Castro said, referring to reducing the number of sugar-laden drinks that have been linked to childhood obesity. “No cookies as snacks, pizza, chicken fingers or frozen vegetables. Instead, children eat and enjoy nutritiously balanced foods like grilled chicken, fresh veggies like eggplant and whole grains like brown rice.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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