What’s Cooking?

Changes for school nutrition will affect kids this year

Aug 19, 2013 | By Alexandra Sifferlin for TIME
MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN—THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR/GETTY IMAGES

The average American child spends more than 20 hours a week in school. That means kids are doing a good part of their daily eating there as well. Here’s an update on changes that state and federal health officials are making to ensure that kids are feeding their bodies as well as their brains.

Better Breakfast  

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and states the power to make five major changes to school nutrition over time. It allowed the government to give an extra six cents per meal for healthier lunch options.  

The first part of the updated School Breakfast Program will start this year. The program will allow students to get low-fat milk and proper portions for their age. Fifty percent of the breakfast grains served are required to be whole grains. By the next school year, 100% of them should be whole grains.

Healthier School Lunch

During the last school year, new school lunch standards limited the calories at lunch. Lunch calories had to be between 550 and 650 for elementary schools, 600 and 700 for middle schools, and 750 to 850 for high schools. Full-fat milk was cut from the menu and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables were added. Many students complained that the low calorie meals left them hungry. In response, the USDA allowed schools more flexibility in meat and grain servings. For now, schools continue to have this leeway as health officials work on the lunch requirements.

“The hope is that now that schools have had a year with the new standards, there will start to be more innovation and variety in the offerings,” says Jessica Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

No-Guilt Snacks

Two students eat food from the school lunch menu at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, NY.
HANS PENNINK—AP
Two students eat food from the school lunch menu at Draper Middle School in Rotterdam, NY.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act recognized that students have access to unhealthy snacks, both in school cafeterias and vending machines. Last June, the USDA issued new nutrition standards for snacks that include more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and lean proteins as the central ingredients. The new requirements also limit the calories, sugar, fat, and sodium these snacks contain. The change applies to all foods and beverages sold on school grounds during the school day. These snacks can’t contain more than 200 calories per item, for example, and sodas and sports drinks sold in high schools must contain fewer than 60 calories in a 12-ounce serving. Elementary and middle schools can only sell water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, and low-fat or fat-free milk.

These changes aren’t expected to be in place until next year but many schools will start to follow the requirements this fall.  “Although the snack food changes are not required this year, we are encouraging schools to start towards them so by next year it’s easy,” says Black. “It is great for everyone to know the standards are out there, and better prepare for them.”