Report: Students Need More Veggies, Fewer Calories

The Institute of Medicine, which advises Congress, has announced recommendations to make lunches and breakfasts provided by schools more nutritious. Sixty percent of U.S. schoolchildren participate in the school lunch program. The proposed guidelines include limits on salt, fat and calories.

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School meals have never won any awards for being healthy. Now the Institute of Medicine, which advises Congress, is announces recommendations that include limits on salt, fat and calories. NPR's Patty Neighmond reports.

PATTY NEIGHMOND: Many school districts are trying to improve their breakfast and lunch menus with nutritious foods like oatmeal, turkey sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and salad bars. But many menus still include things like fish sticks, nachos, pasta and french fries. Now the Institute of Medicine says school menus should take another step forward and reflect more of what's been learned over the past decades about health and nutrition.

Pediatrician Virginia Stallings headed the committee.

Dr. VIRGINIA STALLINGS (Pediatrician): Using whole grains means the foods are less refined and they retain some of the natural vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber, which is a particularly hard thing to get in children's diets. So by going to whole grain-rich products, we'll improve some of the nutritional intake and also the fiber intake.

NEIGHMOND: So the recommendations say half of all grains served - that includes breads, muffins and hamburger buns - should be whole grains. They also want to gradually decrease the amount of salt.

Dr. STALLINGS: If you look at the sodium intake in the high school school lunch, currently it's about 1,6000 milligrams. Over this period, we'd like to get that down to 740 milligrams per meal. So you can see that's more than a half reduction.

NEIGHMOND: Schools that adopt the guidelines would limit trans-fats and use low or non-fat milk products. Juice would no longer be counted as a fruit - only whole fruits would count. And for the first time there'd be a limit on calories per meal. It used to be that the goal of school nutrition was adequate nourishment; now there's worry about obesity.

Dr. STALLINGS: One of the choices will not always be french fries, or always be corn, because those are only going to appear on the menu cycle every now and again.

NEIGHMOND: It's all good, says Barry Sackin, a health consultant who's worked in the school food service field for over 30 years. The problem he sees is paying for it. Fresh items can be more expensive, says Sackin, especially in colder regions.

Mr. BARRY SACKIN: I live in Southern California. Access to fruits and vegetables, particularly fresh, almost year-round is much easier. Trying to find locally sourced fresh produce in the upper Midwest in the middle of January is virtually impossible.

NEIGHMOND: The Institute of Medicine committee estimates changes to make school menus more nutritious could cost four percent more for lunch and 18 percent more for breakfast. There are federal subsidies for lower-income children, but those subsidies are the same nationwide. And except for Hawaii and Alaska, they don't take into account regional differences in the cost of food. The recommendations will now be considered by the USDA, which oversees the nation's school lunch program, and Congress will ultimately decide whether to increase funding and adopt these changes.

Patty Neighmond, NPR News.

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