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Raising School Lunch Nutrition Standards

What it means for America's kids.

One of First Lady Michelle Obama’s most important initiatives is to end childhood obesity in the United States. One of the most problematic factors contributing to the epidemic are school lunches, which are often fatty, processed-food atrocities that don’t teach kids how to make smart choices about what they put into their mouths. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has raised its nutrition standards for school lunches, the first time it has taken such a measure for more than 15 years. The new standards apply to all schools that take government subsidized money for their school lunches. Let’s take a look at some of the ways these new rules will affect America’s school children:

The new standards will set limits on calories for lunches. The caloric limit on elementary school lunches will be set at 650 calories, while middle school lunches will be set at 700 calories and high school lunches at 850 calories. These counts cannot be made up of empty calories, either, like high-fat pizzas or ribs. Pizzas must contain less salt and more whole grains. In fact, all breads, cereals and pastas must have whole grain as their number one ingredient. The new lunches will also require cafeterias to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat milk.

These new standards seem like a welcome change to unhealthy school lunches. Nearly 32 million American kids eat school lunch and 11 million eat school breakfast. Take that number, and combine that with the fact that a third of American kids are overweight or obese. That’s a staggering number, but coupled with the number of students who rely on school lunches, there seems like plenty of room for change. If students don’t learn how to eat properly at home, it seems like it should be schools’ first priority to teach them how to eat well in school. Also, these high-fat, sugary lunches seem like a slap in the face to parents who try to teach their children to avoid these foods at home, but are available to them at school. These children have to be confused.

Still, there are some limitations to the plan. Tomato paste on pizza is still classified as a vegetable, and potatoes can be served more than two times per week. The changes also cost more for financially-strapped school districts. Lunches will cost 11 cents more per lunch to prepare, while breakfasts will cost 28 cents more per meal. The federal government will provide 6 cents to help in preparation.