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Summer 2007 Vol. 7 No. 2

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©BananaStock/JupiterImagesNutrition Standards

Ensuring That All School Foods Make the Grade

S tudents who once would've had to choose between a standard-issue school meal and a lunchbox from home often have a smorgasbord of options these days, ranging from fast-food burgers and pizza to chips and soda sold in vending machines. Nearly 90 percent of American schools now offer foods that compete with federally funded meals, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Many of these "competitive" foods are nutritionally wanting -- low in nutrients children need, and high in calories, fat, or sodium. While foods sold through the federalmeal program are required to meet nutritional standards, those sold outside of the program are usually accountable only to kids' taste, and research suggests that students may be choosing them instead of healthier foods. One study, for example, found that the more a la carte menu items were available, the fewer fruits and vegetables middle schoolers ate.

Worried about the proliferation of unhealthy products in schools and the rising obesity rate in children and teens, Congress asked the Institute of Medicine to recommend nutrition standards for competitive foods.

Given that students get a significant portion of their calories during the school day, schools are in a unique position to encourage healthy eating habits, the IOM said in a new report. And competitive foods don't have to be unhealthy foods, it added.

©PhotodiscThe report recommends that two "tiers" of competitive foods be allowed in schools. To be available for purchase by kids at any grade level, a food should provide at least one serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or dairy. It also needs to meet limits on calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. Examples of snacks that would satisfy these requirements include whole fruit, carrot sticks, and certain granola bars and tortilla chips. Entrees such as a turkey sandwich or a fruit salad with yogurt would also pass muster.

Another, broader tier of foods should be allowed only in high schools after classes are over for the day, the report says. These foods don't need to provide a serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or dairy, but they still must meet limits for calories, fat, sodium, and added sugar. Snacks such as baked potato chips, graham crackers, and pretzels would fit within these requirements. Still, promotion of these snacks should be minimized -- for example, by locating vending machines outside of high-traffic areas.

Schools also should nix the sale of caffeinated beverages because headaches, shakiness, and other symptoms of caffeine dependency and withdrawal could interfere with students' learning. And diet sodas and other beverages with artificial sweeteners should only be available in high schools after the end of the regular school day, the report adds. Plain water should be available throughout the day at no cost to students.

Although the guidelines are stringent, they do allow for a few exceptions. Low fat and skim versions of kids' cherished chocolate milk should be spared, for example, because the benefit of its calcium content outweighs the downside of its added sugars.

Some schools have reported using foods and beverages as rewards for good behavior or academic accomplishment, the report observes. It recommends against this practice, pointing out that establishing an emotional connection between accomplishment and food fosters poor eating habits.

Making the standards work in practice will take the effort of many groups -- legislators, health professionals, school boards, and parents, to name a few. The committee that wrote the report also expressed the hope that the new requirements will encourage the food and beverage industry to develop healthier products targeted to kids.   -- Sara Frueh

Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way Toward Healthier Youth. Committee on Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine (2007, approx. 300 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10383-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $42.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Virginia A. Stallings, Jean A. Cortner Endowed Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology, director of the nutrition center, and director of faculty development at the Joseph Stokes Jr. Research Institute at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Copyright 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences