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Spring 2011 Vol. 11 Number 1

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Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Healthier Fare

Updating Nutrition Standards for a USDA Food Program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made great strides in the last few years in improving the nutritional quality of its food programs for low-income, disadvantaged populations. The agency proposed upgrades to the nutrition standards of federal school meal programs earlier this year and made changes to the WIC program. Now USDA has its sights on improving meals and snacks for children and adults in supervised day care programs.

Supervised care centers, homes, and shelters serve millions of children and hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled adults. The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) reimburses the food expenditures of qualified facilities that serve low-income clients, helping to keep day care affordable for those who need it most. The program also promotes healthy eating through the nutrition standards it sets.

But more than two decades have passed since the program's nutritional requirements were last updated. Abundant new evidence has emerged on the links between nutrition and chronic disease. Concerns about obesity have joined worries about disadvantaged populations not getting enough food. USDA turned to the Institute of Medicine for advice on updating the CACFP's meal requirements.

The resulting guidance boils down to less fat, salt, and added sugars, and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The IOM's report calls on supervised care facilities to limit their use of foods and ingredients that are high in sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugars. Controlling the amount of fat and added sugars and adhering to portion sizes will help keep calories in check. While children under age 2 should receive whole milk, the milk for everyone else should contain no more than 1 percent fat. Facilities should also use vegetable oils and limit the salt when preparing meals.

In addition, the report says each meal should include one serving of fruit and two of vegetables, and facilities should increase the amount of dark green and orange vegetables served each week while limiting starchy vegetables. At least half of the grain products served should be rich in whole grains, and baked or fried grain products high in fat and added sugars should be allowed only once a week.

Supervised care providers will need resources and assistance to comply with the recommended changes, noted the committee that wrote the report. USDA personnel should work with state agencies and health professionals to help participating sites plan menus and purchase and prepare foods. USDA should streamline the way CACFP monitors facilities' compliance and reimburses them.
-- Christine Stencel

Child and Adult Care Food Program: Aligning Dietary Guidance for All. Committee to Review Child and Adult Care Food Program Meal Requirements, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2010, approx. 208 pp.; ISBN 0-309-15845-1; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $48.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Suzanne P. Murphy, researcher and professor, Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, University of Hawaii, Honolulu. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences