Less sugar, lower sodium and more whole grains are among the new guidelines for school meals under consideration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These are reasonable, necessary changes considering that about 1 in 5 U.S. children are obese, a condition that can lead to serious lifelong health consequences if it continues into adulthood.
The USDA’s goal is to more closely align school meal standards with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which details ingredients for a healthy diet. For example, these guidelines call for limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories. In comparison, added sugars provide about 17% of calories in school breakfasts and about 11% in school lunches. Currently, the USDA does not have guidelines limiting sugar in school meals.
Meeting the new nutritional standards will mean that schools will have to cut some products, replacing them with ones that meet the new sugar and sodium guidelines. The International Dairy Foods Assn. earlier this month indicated it would voluntarily reduce sugars in flavored milk so that children could still have the option of flavored milk.
The proposed guidelines would be implemented in phases, which is a smart approach because many school district nutrition directors worry that kids won’t eat healthier meals if they are not tasty. One of the public comments submitted states: “If we change the proposed restrictions I believe we will see a significant drop in children actually eating at school. We currently struggle with getting kids to accept the current meal pattern.” The USDA has already received more than 77,000 public comments on the proposed guidelines and is accepting more through May. The changes will take effect in fall 2024.
Certainly, changes aren’t easy, particularly when children have become accustomed to certain types of food. It may be difficult to change kids’ palates if they are used to consuming sugary drinks and high-sodium foods, such as chicken nuggets.
Still, schools have a responsibility to provide nutritionally balanced meals because the food they provide may be the only full meals that many kids will eat in a day. Obesity is more prevalent among kids in lower-income families than those with higher incomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nutritious meals are a key part of helping level the playing field in the educational attainment of lower-income students, especially Latino and Black children. Inadequate nutrition hinders’ students concentration and can also trigger absences. California public schools began offering free meals to all students beginning in the 2022-23 school year in light of rising rates of food insecurity and to destigmatize free school meals.
Obesity, which was designated a chronic disease by the National Institutes of Health in 1998, afflicts about 14.4 million children. Most kids who are obese are likely to be obese as adults. Obesity can have serious lifelong consequences leading to depression and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.
Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued controversial new guidelines to treat obesity in kids. Instead of leaving obesity untreated, the organization now recommends medications for kids as young as 12 and weight-loss surgery for those as young as 13. The new guidelines run counter to the idea that kids might overcome obesity on their own. It recognizes the fact that we need to change our approach to childhood obesity by treating it as a complex chronic condition.
A 2015 study in the Health Affairs journal found that improving nutrition standards in school meals were among the top three most successful and cost-effective public health solutions to childhood obesity. Researchers found that excess weight takes time to accumulate, indicating that even small changes in diet can make a difference.
Obesity is a complex disease that involves genetic, physiologic, socioeconomic and environmental contributors. However, it’s clear that providing more nutritious meals to kids at schools can play an important role in addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity. It might seem difficult to make changes to the diets of kids, but healthier school meals will pay off in the long run.