What does America want? Do we want skinny people? Perhaps ultimately costing them their health? Is the school lunch debacle about our children's health -- specifically, the prevention of chronic diseases and the promotion of healthy lifestyles -- or only about losing weight? As of this school year, The National School Lunch Program has cut calories at each meal and has finally included more fruits and vegetables in the lunch line. According to the USDA:
The Healthy, Hunger‐Free Kids Act of 2010 directed USDA to update the NSLP's meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new meal pattern goes into effect at the beginning of SY 2012‐13, and increases the availability of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the school menu. New dietary specifications set specific calorie limits to ensure age‐appropriate meals for grades K‐5, 6‐8, and 9‐12. Other meal enhancements include gradual reductions in the sodium content of the meals (sodium targets must be reached by SY 2014‐15, SY 2017‐18 and SY 2022‐23). While school lunches must meet Federal meal requirements, decisions about what specific foods to serve and how they are prepared are made by local school food authorities.
However, the message we hear through the media -- and yes, from the students too -- is all about too few calories and being hungry for more. This calorie frenzy reinforces America's unhealthy obsession with numbers -- whether they be on a scale or a nutrition label. Are calorie maximums really essential when serving high-quality, healthy foods? Perhaps just getting Americans, specifically our children, to eat fruits and vegetables should be our major concern rather than calorie-counting!
So please, America: Throw away the scales and stop focusing only on calories. Yes, calories are of extreme importance for weight management. But they are only of equal, or perhaps even lesser, significance than food quality. Raising happy and healthy eaters -- our students -- should (really must!) begin with high-quality, nutrient-dense foods rather than lower-calorie processed foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats are nutrient-dense foods. Foods such as avocados and nuts are nutrient-dense as well as caloric, but also are vital components of healthy eating programs. Proteins are also critical... Yet the new school lunch program limits students in grades 9 to 12 to just two ounces of protein at lunch (14 grams/protein/day). The question is: Should schools put a maximum calorie level on these foods? If so, should they raise the new maximum 550 kcals to 650 kcals for grades K-5, 600 to 700 for grades 6-8 and 750 to 850 for grades 9-12? Be proactive! See what the new school lunch guidelines are here. Let your voices be heard.