FRIDAY, May 13, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- School lunches have long served as the punch line of jokes, prompting chuckles about "mystery meat" and angry lunch ladies.
But no one's laughing these days, with childhood obesity reaching epidemic proportions in the United States. Instead, parents are looking to schools to help keep their kids fit and healthy through proper nutrition.
"Five days out of the week, many kids are getting two of their three daily meals at school," said Marjorie Nolan, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "School districts have an opportunity to teach children how to eat, as well as providing healthier food."
School nutritionists have for years made quiet progress in improving the healthiness of the food that's served to millions of kids for breakfast and lunch. But now they have the backing of the federal government, with the passage in December of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to set standards for food available to kids at school, and offers extra money to schools that meet those standards.
Childhood obesity affects nearly one of every five American kids 6 to 19 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate has risen dramatically, more than tripling over the past 30 years.
The USDA wasted no time flexing its new muscles, releasing in January a proposed set of rules that would drastically improve school meals by reducing fat and sodium while increasing whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The federal law also will require the agency to create nutritional standards for so-called "competitive" foods -- the stuff kids can buy in vending machines or at school stores, outside the normal school lunch program.
"These steps are being taken very seriously by the USDA and the government," Nolan said. "It's going to be a challenge for the school districts to make these changes, but the USDA definitely seems to be doing things to try to make it manageable."
The USDA rules call for:
- Establishing calorie maximums and minimums in school meals, set according to age ranges.
- Reducing sodium in meals during the next decade.
- Serving just one cup a week of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, green peas and corn.
- Increasing fruits and vegetables served to kids.
- Using products that are free of trans fats.
- Providing only unflavored 1 percent milk or skim milk that is either flavored or unflavored.
- Dramatically increasing the amount of whole grains in school meals.
Many of these standards come in areas that have had little or no federal regulation in the past, said Leah Schmidt, director of food and nutrition for the Hickman Mills School District in Kansas City, Mo., and vice-president elect of the School Nutrition Association. But some schools had already jumped on the issue.
"It wasn't a real surprise to us," Schmidt said. "Many of the school districts participating in the national school lunch program already are working on the changes that are now official in the legislation."
For example, many schools already had weaned students off whole milk and now serve only 1 percent or skim milk. School nutritionists also have been working on adding more whole grains, fruits and vegetables to their menus, and reducing the amount of sodium in the foods they serve.
"We've already seen a lot of products that have been reformulated, bringing down the sodium content in them," Schmidt said. "This is not an unexpected thing for us."
The new federal law and the USDA rules do add one important thing: They bring order and unity to a healthy school meals movement that had been progressing in piecemeal fashion, said Marcia Smith, nutrition director for the Polk County Public School District in Florida and past president of the School Nutrition Association.
"For us, it's wonderful that we now have something in place where we are all doing the same thing," Smith said. "Now we can all move toward the same goal. It's difficult when everyone is working with different standards."
Food manufacturers will benefit because they often had to produce similar items in different ways to meet the nutritional standards of different school districts, Smith said. That in turn increased the cost to the schools.
Which isn't to say that meeting the USDA requirements will be cheap. Fresh and nutritious food is more expensive than processed foods, and it has a shorter shelf life, Smith said.
"It's definitely going to take additional money," Smith said. "When we serve fresh green beans versus canned green beans, the cost is nine cents more per serving. It's worth the additional money. We just have to find ways to absorb that additional cost."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on childhood nutrition.
A companion article has more on school system efforts to improve lunchroom offerings.