Bosco cheese breadsticks. Corn dogs. Nacho chips with cheese. These are some of the main dish offerings in my kids’ school district and I have to believe that none of these is healthy, nor likely to help win the war on obesity. Of course there are salads and fruit and turkey sandwiches too, but I suspect they don’t sell nearly as well as the other stuff.
I hope that the menu is about to change. This week the Obama administration announced new rules for federally subsidized school lunch programs that mandate more whole grains, fruits and veggies. It also puts limits on sodium and trans fats that kids in the hopes that these guidelines will encourage healthier diets and battle obesity at the same time.
When the proposed changes were initially outlined, there was a loud cry from the food industry that wanted to make sure that the tomato paste on the pizza counted as a vegetable and that potatoes in a variety of forms would remain a vegetable and not a starch — and these battles were won. The final mandates are imperfect but are certainly a step in a healthier direction. Whole grains are a must, as are larger numbers of fruits and vegetables on the menu. All milk has to be low fat. Minimum and maximum calorie amounts based on age are now factored in so that the kindergarteners aren’t getting the same amount of food as the sixth graders. Good changes all around.
What is both interesting and distressing is that these new mandates were announced only a week or so after a study was published in Pediatrics which showed that whether or not a school offered snack foods and pop (usually in vending machines in the school) had no effect on obesity rates. In other words, schools that offered junk foods and drinks had the same rates of obesity between 5th and 8th grade as schools that banned these items. I hope that the more systematic and widespread approach to encourage healthier diets in the form of school lunches will have an impact, but I worry that when it comes to middle schoolers choosing their lunch items, the junkiest stuff available is still likely to win out over the whole grains, fruits and veggies.
Since most school cafeterias offer choices, kids may still choose to eat the pizza and fries and skip the healthy stuff all together. Time will tell.