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Winter/Spring 2010 Vol. 10 Number 1

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©Comstock Images/Getty Images A Healthy Menu for School Meals

An apple on the teacher's desk is an iconic image, but what food springs to mind when we think of students? Pizza? French fries? If these associations readily arise, maybe it's because such foods have long been staples in many school cafeterias. But as concerns about malnutrition and hunger give way to worries about childhood obesity, parents and public officials alike have begun to scrutinize lunchroom fare and call for upgrades to the nutritional quality of school meals.

In a recent report, the Institute of Medicine provides policymakers with a menu of changes that would improve the healthfulness of school meals and meet the nutritional needs of growing kids.

The key recommendations are to increase the amounts and variety of fruits and vegetables, to decrease meals' sodium content and minimize saturated and trans fats, to replace a substantial amount of refined grains with whole-grain products, and to provide 1 percent or nonfat milk rather than whole or 2 percent milk. The report also calls on the school meal programs to set age-appropriate calorie limits on meals for the first time as well as meet minimum calorie requirements. This recommendation reflects today's greater concerns about obesity, but still acknowledges that hunger remains an issue for some disadvantaged groups in America.

The recommendations will bring school meals in line with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes. But implementing them likely will raise the costs of providing meals, largely because of the greater amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods involved. A combination of higher federal meal reimbursement, capital investment, and additional money for training food service operators will be needed to make the necessary changes in school cafeterias.

Of course, not all schoolchildren eat breakfasts or lunches provided through the school meals programs. Many bring lunches from home or opt for the food and beverages available in vending machines, a la carte service in cafeterias, or snack bars. While the IOM has not addressed packed lunches, it did recommend nutrition standards for the offerings sold in schools in competition with school meals in a 2008 report. The recommendations in these two reports work in tandem to ensure a level nutritional playing field for all foods and beverages sold in schools. And if implemented together, these reports would reassure parents that their children have access to healthy food on school grounds. — Christine Stencel

School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2010, 252 pp.; ISBN 0-309-14436-1; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $55.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Virginia A. Stallings, Jean A. Cortner Endowed Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and professor of pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences