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Updating school lunches

October 21, 2009 - Kathie Evanoff
As editor of several community newspapers, I have the opportunity to see some of the school lunch menus in the area’s public and parochial schools.

I have to say that as a whole, the lunches aren’t that bad, but there are some areas that could use some improvement.

It has been many years since I packed a lunch for my own children, but I remember every day trying to put in their lunch bags a sandwich, a piece of fruit and something sweet, usually homemade cookies or cupcakes. I was a stay-at-home mom during their elementary years and by the time I decided to go back to work, they were in high school and handed their own lunches.

Back then, we didn’t have the intricate food pyramid or the suggestions from the 1995 Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements” that schools are required to use as a base for their menus. This set of regulations didn’t become a requirement until 1995 and set specific amounts of nutrients to be included in students’ cafeteria lunches.

So what’s been happening lately?

Well, in 2005, the Institute of Medicine released the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” published jointly by the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you are curious about what the document says, you can get a PDF version of the guidelines at

But this month the Institute of Medicine released a report that states the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program is in need of a makeover. Recommendations by the IOM can be written into regulations by the USDA and if that happens, schools will be required to make some changes to their current menus. The IOM recommendations are based on the Dietary Guidelines.

Briefly, those recommendations include increasing the daily amount of fruits and vegetables to two servings. Fruits and vegetables are lumped into one category, but the IOM has recommended these servings include dark green and bright orange vegetables and fruits as well as legumes, starchy and other vegetables each week. Currently, there is no requirement as to the type of fruit or vegetable being served.

In the grains/bread category, the IOM has recommended at least half to come from whole grains. Currently there is no requirement for whole grains.

Milk can be sold as whole, reduced or low-fat, and fat free milks that are either plain or flavored. New guidelines would require fat free and low-fat milk only. Fat-free milk can be flavored.

At this time, the total calories has a minimum level, but under the new recommendations, lunch menus should be between a minimum and a maximum level.

The last recommendation is sodium, or salt. There is no current level for sodium content in lunch menus, but the IOM has recommended a gradual decrease to reach a specified level by 2020.

Remember that these are simply recommendations by the IOM and are not requirements, until and unless the USDA writes them into the NSLP and SBP programs.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog organization for health and public safety, primarily when it comes to food and nutrition, has stated the recommendations should go one step further and limit added sugars in school lunches. The USDA currently does not address sugar.

It is important that our children get proper nutrition. Of course, the schools can offer all they want, and they can’t force the kids to eat the healthy stuff; those lessons should be taught at home. Unfortunately, the meals that children get at school are sometimes the best meals of the day that some children get. It makes sense that they should be as healthy as possible.


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