MORE THAN 30.5 MILLION CHILDREN in the United States are fed each day by the National School Lunch Program, and 10.5 million students eat breakfast at school, as well. For these children, as many as half of their daily calories can come from meals served at school. Yet nutritional standards for school meals have changed little since 1995. Yeonhwa Park, an assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, was the only food scientist on a national panel that took a critical look at school lunch standards. In October, the group released recommendations for new nutritional standards, which Park says reflect how much more we know about what our kids should be eating to stay healthy.
Reviewing the national school lunch and breakfast programs sounds like a big task. How did you get started?
Well, our overall goals were to get students eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to make sure that the total level of calories, sodium and saturated fat per meal are appropriate for different age groups. It was challenging to figure out how to achieve these goals in a form that students would accept and would be affordable for schools.
You have particular expertise on reducing sodium content and increasing fiber. Can you tell us more about what changes you’d like to see in these areas?
For whole grains, there is pretty good acceptance already among school-age children, but availability is limited and the cost differences between whole and processed grains are significant. Ultimately we decided that schools should aim for achieving at least 50 percent whole grain-rich content in both breakfasts and lunches within three years of the final regulations’ adoption.
Sodium is a bit more tricky. Reducing sodium levels in foods causes a noticeable change in the way that they taste. That’s why we ended up recommending an incremental reduction—10 percent every two years for the next 10 years. This gives students’ taste buds some time to adapt and makes it more practical to implement for the schools preparing meals. We also hope industry will respond with lower-sodium alternatives.
Did the panel recommend any other major changes?
Well, we recommended that for the first time menu planning standards set a minimum and maximum level of calories. We came up with these calorie ranges based on the age groups of school children and the meal type. Currently the amount of calories in school meals is really varied, both across schools and from day to day. Also, the requirements in place now don’t differentiate based on the nutritional needs of different ages—younger children are served the same amount of food as older students.
What impacts do you think these adjusted guidelines will have on the health of school children?
Implementing the improvements we’ve recommended is going to be a big change for some schools, but many other schools are already doing really well. But once these new standards are up and running, we hope that they will foster healthier eating habits for kids across the country.