Nutritional Guidelines

School lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which states that no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school lunches to provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. School lunches must meet Federal nutrition requirements over the course of one week's worth of lunches served, but decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities. The 2007 School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment III (SNDA III) study based on research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the 2004-2005 school year found that students in more than 90 percent of schools surveyed had the opportunity to select lunches that were consistent with dietary standards for fat and saturated fat.

School nutrition programs are increasingly using more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and lowfat dairy in school lunches. Efforts such as the Local School Wellness Policies required by the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act have involved parents, students, and the school community in efforts to promote healthy eating environments and increased physical activity throughout school campuses.

In 2009, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released School Meals: Building Blocks For Healthy Children which reviewed and provided recommendations to update the nutrition standard and the meal requirements for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. School Meals also set standards for menu planning that focus on food groups, calories, saturated fat, and sodium and that incorporate Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Dietary Reference Intakes.

Unhealthy meals and malnutrition
Unhealthy school lunches are one of the contributors to malnutrition in the form of excessive consumption of unhealthy foods. However, some measures are being taken to change that. Unhealthy adult eating patterns can be traced directly to unhealthy school lunches, as children learn many eating habits from social settings such as school. A 2010 study of 1003 Michigan junior high students found that students who ate school meals for lunch were significantly more likely to be obese than those who did not. Promoting healthy eating in schools may reduce as many as 25 percent of adolescent obesity cases. An example is the Berkeley Food System project which utilizes vegetable gardens to promote education for healthy eating. Janet Brown, who started the project, explained that students are more likely to eat healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables if they are better introduced to them.

In 2008 the Economic Research Service of the USDA issued a report entitled "The National School Lunch Program: Backgrounds, Trends, and Issues." Authors Ralston, Newman, Clauson, Guthrie, and Buzby reaffirm one of the main goals of the NSLP as identified by Congress is to "Promote the health and well-being of the Nation's children" (2008). However, according to their research, new challenges for meeting this goal have emerged with the increased scrutiny on USDA donated commodities high in fat such as meat, cheese, and milk as well as the emergence of "competitive foods." The NSLP provides federal nutritional guidelines and participating schools receive USDA commodities in return. The authors of this research argue that providing USDA food subsidies high in fat contribute to childhood obesity. While NSLP participants have higher intakes of calcium and fiber--nutrients often under consumed by children--they also have higher fat intakes (Ralston, Newman, Clauson, Guthrie, and Buzby, 2008). Notwithstanding the higher fat intakes, study results comparing weight gain of NSLP participants with their nonparticipating counterparts are inconclusive. The authors of this research assert that another factor challenging school administrators is the emergence of "competitive foods." Competitive foods are not included in the NSLP reimbursement plan and therefore, not required to meet USDA nutrient standards. Competitive foods may include: food purchased off campus; a la carte items purchased on campus; food purchased in vending machines; food purchased for school fundraising; food available at school parties; treats given to students by teachers. Generally speaking, competitive foods are lower in key nutrients and higher in fat than the NSLP reimbursable meals. The availability of competitive foods in schools often undermines the nutritional goals and disrupts the effectiveness of the NSLP.

Applying nutritional standards
The research by Ralston, Newman, Clauson, Guthrie, and Buzby recommends that nutritional standards be applied to all food served or sold in schools. In addition, they note that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended in 2005 that the USDA's authority to regulate "foods of minimal nutritional value" be extended to a wider class of foods (2008). Along with the assessment of the nutritional value of a NSLP meal, the economic situation of a child should also be considered with respect to nutritional benefits from the program. A recent article published in The Journal of Econometrics tries to do just that. While maintaining the nutritional advantages of the new Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act, the authors of "The impact of the National School Lunch Program on child health: A nonparametric bounds analysis" (Craig Gundersen, Brent Kreider, John Pepper, 2011) assert that, "Children in households reporting the receipt of free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program are more likely to have negative health outcomes than observationally similar nonparticipants". They assert that specific cohorts are not receiving the nutritional benefits from the NSLP that many had hoped.
The authors hypothesize that the reason for their data, indicating poorer health in reduced-price lunch participation, is: First, children receiving free or reduced-price meals are likely to differ from nonparticipants in ways that are not observed in the data. Second, households of those cohorts most affected by reduced-price lunch may be misreporting participation in the program. The research methods the authors used were a laborious three-year study of over 5,000 participants per year. The article gives a full description of "food insecurity" as it relates to household food consumption.

Nutrition, food security, and obesity
Research data has shown that 36 percent of the children in reduced-price lunch programs are "food insecure" and 19 percent of those children are obese. The article suggests that while much research has been done to analyze the nutritional value of the NSLP program, little attention is paid to those "food insecure" households regarding the impact of the NSLP. Based on the high correlation of obesity and reduced-price lunch participation, the authors suggest that given the momentum of the new guidelines for nutrition, the NSLP re-evaluate those at-risk students for more effective nutritional services.

Studies comparing NSLP participants and non-participants have thus far been inconclusive in determining if any weight gain occurs if one participates or not. In fact, one of the most rigorous studies actually showed "similar calorie intakes for participants and nonparticipants but higher fat and sodium intakes for participants." It is ironic that a program, which began with the intention of reducing under-nourished school-aged children, has come full circle to the current objective of helping to reduce childhood obesity. The most obvious problem is that even if more nutritious foods are provided, there is no guarantee that the students will eat them. The NSLP does not take into account the great variance of the student population. Some children are smaller than others, and some are more athletic than others. Some of their metabolisms require more calories than is mandated by the NSLP, while others find an 850 calorie limit is adequate for their lifestyle.

In 2011, a bill was presented to Congress requiring public schools to post calorie and nutritional information on school menu boards. Bill sponsor, Rep. Joseph McNamara called for it to be implemented by January 2013.

There are three simple ways through which the nutrition and obesity problem in schools can be fixed. The first idea is to have children in schools only exposed to Fruits and Veggies as snacks. The Journal of Nutrition's article "Restricting Snacks in U.S. Elementary Schools is Associated with Higher Frequency of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption," states that "Children in schools with restricted snack availability had significantly higher frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption than children in schools without restricted snack availability." Suggesting that a restrictive snack policy should be part of a multi-faceted approach to improve children's diet quality in schools. The second idea is to Inform and Educate All school attendees about nutrition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition's article "APPLE project: 2-y findings of a community-based obesity prevention program in primary school-age children" states: "A relatively simple approach, providing activity coordinators and basic nutrition education in schools, significantly reduces the rate of excessive weight gain in children." Researchers at Cornell University have also suggested a number of techniques based in principles of behavioral economics to encourage healthier meal selection without completely restricting choice. These include placing white milk ahead of chocolate milk in coolers, moving and highlighting fruit displays, and using appealing names for vegetables to improve palatability.

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