As parents and as educators, we have the responsibility to help our children make good choices in a variety of contexts: social, emotional, and intellectual. That same responsibility also extends to nutrition since we want children to develop healthy habits relative to what they eat and how much. Those good habits help to provide the necessary fuel for learning but will also serve them well throughout their lifetimes.
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 18 percent in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent over the same period. For adolescents, the percentage of children who are obese has more than quadrupled in the past 30 years.” Clearly childhood obesity is a problem.
Five years ago, Congress passed legislation that transformed how the nation’s public schools feed students. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act required these schools to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less sugar, fat and salt. These requirements align with the most recent 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines published by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and of Agriculture (USDA). These two federal agencies must jointly publish a report every five years containing nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public. The statute (Public Law 101-445, 7 U.S.C. 5341 et seq.) requires that these Dietary Guidelines be based on the most current scientific and medical knowledge.
The Guidelines, which are detailed below, support parents and schools in their efforts to help children learn good eating habits:
- Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan. All food and beverage choices matter.
- Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
- Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices. Consider cultural and personal preferences to make these shifts easier to accomplish and maintain.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all. Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work to communities.
This same general framework guides the preparation of meals served in public schools. Breakfasts and lunches prepared in your child’s cafeteria must not only meet these Dietary Guidelines for Americans but also comply with the specific federal nutrition requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. If they are found to be out of compliance, schools lose their federal reimbursement for some of the major costs associated with feeding public school students.
This means that your child’s school must provide him or her with the right balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains and lean protein with every meal. Meals served must also limit the amount of sodium, calories and unhealthy fat contained in all foods served. There are also standards that apply to all foods and beverages sold in school during the school day at times other than breakfast and lunch. Foods sold in vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lines, for example, must also meet standards established in 2014 and provide healthy choices for your child.
Since the new standards took effect in 2012, school districts have worked hard to adjust, devising more effective ways to serve food that is healthful as well as appealing. Many have developed salad bars with more diverse and interesting choices, introduced a range of spices besides salt, and increased the use of frozen vegetables rather than canned, to improve taste and lower sodium content. If you want more information, contact your child’s school for menus, nutritional guidelines and other details. By working together, you can make a difference in your child’s eating habits now and throughout their lifetime!