School lunch

The USDA recently announced a ban on junk food in schools as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Starting in the 2014-15 school year, the “Smart Snacks in School” program bans unhealthy snack choices, thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity. The program requires schools to make the switch to snacks that adhere to calorie, sodium, fat and sugar limits. Like the new, healthier school lunches, the standards require fewer processed foods, more whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and leaner protein. But does this mean it’s safe to stop packing your kid’s lunch and snacks for school? 

Here’s what the USDA is doing so far:

  • School lunch nutrition standards improved: Healthier and more nutritious school meals are available due to improved nutrition standards implemented as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
  • School snacks standards created: The “Smart Snacks in School” program strives to remove unhealthy snack choices from school vending machines. Foods must contain 50 percent whole grains, or at least have a fruit or vegetable as the main ingredient. Drinks cannot contain more than 60 calories.
  • Foodservice education grants added: $5.2 million in grants to provide training and technical assistance for child nutrition foodservice professionals and support stronger school nutrition education programs.
  • Farm to School grants added. A $5 million Farm to School grant program to increase the amount of healthy, local food in schools.
  • Food Pyramid changed to MyPlate. The MyPlate symbol and resources at ChooseMyPlate.gov provide reference tools for parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and communities.

The initiative is steering schools in the right direction, with a focus on healthy food choices. “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts.”

Are the USDA’s Healthy Choices Healthy Enough?

junk food ban

The options for kids at school still may not be as healthy as what you would choose to serve your kids from home. The USDA’s junk food ban infographic puts most of the focus on reducing empty calories “from food components such as added sugars and solid fats that provide little nutritional value.” (Solid fats can be good for you. These fats are found in healthy choices like coconut oil.)

Snacks are allowed to be 35 percent sugar by weight, meaning sweetened yogurt topped with chocolate candy passes the USDA’s standards. By calories, these yogurts are about 57 percent sugar (80 calories out of 140). And the focus on lowering added sugars doesn’t mean the USDA is avoiding refined sweeteners or artificial ingredients. The chocolate candy on top of the yogurt contains corn syrup and chemical dyes. The beverage choice the USDA uses as an example on the infographic is zero-calorie flavored water. That can be an unhealthy choice since it’s filled with artificial sweeteners and chemical dyes.

But that zero-calorie flavored water is still an improvement over high fructose corn syrup-laden soda. Milk is also still available as an option during lunchtime. The other snack options the USDA uses as examples are peanuts, “light” popcorn, low-fat tortilla chips, 100 percent juice fruit cups, and granola bars made with oats, fruit and nuts. 

The new options are lower in fat, calories and sugar. But, since the focus of the program is centered on ending obesity, rather than providing natural, healthy options for kids, there’s still bound to be a lot of junk in the food at your kid’s school.

As for the new school lunches, you can check out an example of what your kids were eating versus what they’re eating now. Again, it’s healthier than it was before. Previously, a slice of cheese pizza, some canned pineapple, tater tots with ketchup and some low-fat chocolate milk constituted a meal. Now, your child would get whole wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, raw grape tomatoes, applesauce, low-fat plain milk and low-fat ranch dip. Baked sweet potato fries and grape tomatoes are a healthier vegetable choice than ketchup. And plain milk rather than sugary chocolate-flavored milk is an improvement. Unfortunately, the lack of sugary chocolate-flavored milk isn’t a requirement (although in cities including Los Angeles, flavored milks are banned). 

Bottom line: what the USDA is changing primarily has a low-fat/low-calorie focus. If you’re hoping for healthy, natural, organic choices for your kids, it’s not happening yet. The Farm to School grant program shows some potential for more natural choices at your children’s lunch tables in the future. 

Should You Still Pack a Lunch?

Whether to send your children to school with packed lunch or have them purchase the school lunch is a personal decision. This year’s school lunches and snacks have the potential to be much healthier than those of previous years. But, there’s still progress to be made.

If you’d like to see changes in the “Smart Snacks in School” program, you can submit comments to the USDA until October 28. The program goes into effect for the 2014-15 school year.

If you decide to continue with homemade school lunches and snacks, here are a few resources to make yours as healthy as possible:

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Image: UGA College of Ag (top),  USDAgov