CHARLESTON, W.Va. – School meals are becoming more colorful and healthful as West Virginia and other states strive to provide more nutritious food.
School lunches now include more fruits, vegetables and whole grain-rich foods; only fat-free or low-fat milk; less saturated fat, trans fat and sodium; and sensible calorie limits based on the age of children being served. Many of the changes at schools incorporate provisions in the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and promoted by first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Schools, too, are being encouraged to prepare more meals with fresh ingredients and reduce reliance on prepared foods.
The updated school lunch now provides one-third of the average daily calorie needs for kids by age, and often contain the same amounts of protein as before the new standards. Some highly active students, like athletes, may need more calories. Some schools may offer second helpings of fruits and vegetables, or a second carton of milk. Schools can also operate after-school snack and supper programs. Students and sports teams also can bring food from home.
“We know that children who eat breakfast and lunch at school consume twice as many servings of fruits, vegetables and milk than those who don’t participate in school nutrition programs,” said state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple. “They also consume fewer soft drinks and skip fewer meals.”
Children in West Virginia have witnessed their school meals slowly evolve in recent years after the state Board of Education became a trailblazer in 2008 by adopting one of the most progressive school nutrition policies in the nation. Policy 4321.1, Standards for School Nutrition set nutrition standards for food and beverages sold served or distributed in school. The Centers for Disease Control has posted the policy on its Center for Excellence website as an example for other schools to duplicate.
Like the new federal guidelines that went into effect this year, West Virginia’s standards were modeled after recommendations from the Institute of Medicine – a gold standard for evidence-based health analysis. Because of the early adoption, changes in West Virginia have been minor compared to other states.
“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” Mrs. Obama said. “And when we’re putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”
Strong school nutrition programs are especially important in a state like West Virginia, where about a third of residents and about 15 percent of schoolchildren are considered obese. Even more are overweight, according to the state Bureau of Public Health. Extra weight can lead to arthritis, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health problems.
“It’s important for students and parents to understand how serious the lifelong complications of obesity can be,” Marple said. “This is a transition year in our schools. I hope that you would encourage your children to try the new meals and also try similar foods at home, too. By providing healthier school meals, we are looking out not only for the health and wellness of students now but also their future well being.”