School meals are changing this year. The USDA has mandated new guidelines detailing the minimum and maximum calories the meals may contain, limiting fat and sodium content, adding whole grain options and requiring more fruit and vegetables.
The program change comes in response to what many see as a rising epidemic of childhood obesity. Obesity rates in adolescents have tripled in the last thirty years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7-percent in 1980 to nearly 20-percent in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5-percent to 18-percent over the same period.
Numerous studies have shown that obesity during childhood increases your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes as an adult, as well as increasing your chances of stroke and cancer.
The United States Department of Agriculture has undertaken using their food subsidies and funding programs to address childhood obesity.
“The idea is to reverse the obesity trend,” said Alan Shannon, Director of Public Affairs for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service-Midwest Region. “If the USDA is helping feed 32 million kids, the USDA needs to do its part.”
The leverage for getting schools to comply is the funding and USDA foods, which support the free and reduced-fee lunches in public and non-profit schools.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed. It stipulated the USDA update it’s guidelines to promote better nutrition and reduce obesity. The new guidelines will ultimately affect all federally funded child nutrition programs - National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Summer Food Service Programs – as well as WIC.
“There’s a breakdown by age and caloric need,” Shannon noted. “We’re traveling and meeting with schools to talk about how the program will work.”
“We supply the funds, food, and technical assistance,” Shannon continued. “States administer the program.”
Shannon admitted that some adjustments might be needed in the new program, since individual needs can stray beyond the average dietary requirements. A highly active school athlete has different needs from a highly sedentary child. However, Shannon is confident the program will achieve its goal without leaving children nutritionally short of their needs.
“We want to provide flexibility,” Shannon said. “We don’t want to create onerous requirements.”
As an example he offered the use of low-sodium canned vegetables provided by the USDA instead of fresh vegetables where lack of access makes the fresh version an expensive option.
“We are encouraging farm-to-school program participation,” Shannon added. “It’s been really effective at improving the quality of food (that) schools have available to them.”
It could be argued that insisting on more fruits and vegetables might result in more waste, as students simply don’t eat the food they are given. But, according to Shannon, that’s expected and planned upon.
“It’s plate waste,” Shannon said. “We know it takes a number of times trying something, of being exposed to it, before kids will start to eat it.”
The USDA is banking on the program helping kids change eating behaviors outside of school, as well. There is where the greatest challenge may lie, especially for impoverished areas. Food may be absent or the choices limited by expense.
Adam Drewnowski, with the Department of Epidemiology at Washington State, and Nicole Darmon, Research Director at the National Research Institute of Agronomy in Marseille, France, worked together to produce a report, Food Choices and Diet Costs, for the American Society for Nutritional Science. In that report, they noted research has shown repeatedly that obesity in America was largely a matter of economics and social status. Limited social and economic resources led to the consumption of more affordable foods that tended to contain added fats and sugars.
“The current structure of food prices is such that sweet and high-fat foods provide dietary energy at the lowest cost,” the report noted.
Poverty means not only a greater chance of missing a meal. It means a greater chance of eating a nutritionally poor meal.
What does that do to a growing body?
“There have been a lot of studies that show children who have skipped even one meal have a harder time in school,” Romi Pattison, the Nutrition Services Director at Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital said. “They have decreased problem solving-skills, decreased attention spans.”
“Kids who don’t eat breakfast tend to have higher body mass index numbers,” Pattison continued. “When you skip breakfast your body tends to try to overcompensate, so you end up overeating the rest of the day.”
In the short term, Pattison says malnourishment, either from overeating of nutritionally poor food or under eating from lack of food, leads to fatigue and irritability as well as poorer mental performance. In the long term, it means children don’t develop to their fullest potential.
What if the kids are running short on nutrition, if they simply don’t get enough calories to meet their needs?
“You could see children losing weight,” Pattison said. “You could also see delayed growth. Especially at certain ages; from 4-6 and 12-14, those are particularly important growth phases.”
Area schools are already offering breakfasts or nutrition breaks in the morning. Those will become healthier over the next three years due to the USDA mandate. For students utilizing the two meals, the school will supply two-thirds of the caloric and nutritional requirements for the average child their age.
The schools are working to fill any gaps that could leave kids hungry.
“We are putting out a garden bar in the cafeteria,” said Kay Teague, Food Service Director at North Crawford. “The kids don’t have to pay extra for it. If they are hungry they can help themselves.”
The garden bar is loaded with fresh vegetables.
“If they come back up for seconds, we have to charge for that,” Teague explained. “The garden bar is free to all the students. And starting in the fall we also offer soup to the high school. Like the garden bar, it’s free of charge. Anyone can have a cup, it doesn’t matter if you’re a free or reduce lunch or you pay full price. If you’re hungry, it’s there for you.
“We are also looking to start opening the kitchen up right after school, so we can sell the kids who have to stay later a slice of pizza or some other healthy snack,” Teague added. “That should be in place sometime in September.”
According to Shannon, efforts must include education to help improve nutrition outside of school. They are making information available online and supplying the schools with free literature to provide to students and families.
Pattison echoes Shannon - education is important.
“If you don’t have much money, you have to make your calories count,” Pattison explained. “I try to point out to people that a bag of frozen broccoli cost much the same as a box of macaroni and cheese. So eating to be healthy doesn’t have to be so expensive. But you have to think about how you are spending your money, you have to budget, you have to plan.”
If the efforts of the schools and the USDA pay off, they hope that the students will impact the parents’ choices by asking for healthier foods.
“We can feed them as healthy as we want, but we can’t stop them from going home and opening a bag of chips,” Teague said. “What we can do is send them home less hungry, and hopefully we can get them to think about what they are eating so they look for something better.”
North Crawford received a fruit and vegetable grant again this year. The program allows the school to supply a daily sample of a fruit or vegetable to all students grades 4K through 8. The program is intended to help students learn to try new foods and develop a healthier diet repertoire.
As Teague noted, some aspects of the new guidelines will be easy to put in place. Others will take time.
“The menus with calorie count are taking more time, and we do have the year to become compliant,” Teague said. “But we get reimbursed 6¢ per child if it’s in place so there is an incentive to get it done sooner.”
“Everyone’s saying the same thing,” Dave Boland, principal and administrator at the School District of Seneca said. “It’s a lot to sort out and learn, it’s new, they’re not sure if it was necessary. We’ll have to wait and see because it’s too soon to tell.”