Back To Class: Three Ways School Meals (and Snacks) Will Look Different

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With the average American child spending up more than 20 hours a week in school, it follows that they’re 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 what kids are noshing on in between class nourishes their bodies as well as their brains.

Better Breakfasts:  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and states with the authority to phase in five major reforms to school nutrition, including adding six cents of federal reimbursement to states per meal to fund more nutritious lunch options for the first time in 30 years, and the ability to apply healthy nutrition standards beyond the cafeteria for snacks as well. This school year, the first phase of the updated School Breakfast Program will be in place; that means students should be able to get low-fat milk and appropriate portions for their age. Fifty percent of the the grains served at breakfast must come from whole grains, and by the next school year, 100% of them should be whole grains.

(MORE: What the New USDA Rules for Healthier School Snacks Mean for Schools)

Healthier School Lunches: During the last school year, new school lunch standards limited calories to between 550 and 650 calories for elementary school lunches, between 600 and 700 for middle school lunches, and 750 to 850 calories for meals served in high schools.  Full-fat milk was eliminated and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables were added to the menu. The calorie cuts were criticized (and cleverly mocked in parody videos) by many students, who complained that the requirements 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 finesse requirements for lunch offerings.

More school districts that want to offer reduced fare or free lunches are also applying for the additional funding to provide healthier meals. According to Jessica Donze Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, 50% of school districts in the U.S. have been certified for the new reimbursement rates and 75% have applied. “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 Black.

(MORE: Pre-Ordering School Lunches Steer Kids To Healthier Meal Choices)

No-Guilt Snacks: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act recognized that students have access to snacks, both in school cafeterias as well as in vending machines, that might undo any nutritional strides made with school lunches. So last June, the USDA issued new nutrition standards for improving 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 and apply to all foods and beverages sold outside of the meals program on school campuses 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 less 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 beginning this fall. Because vending sales have become an important source of revenue for some schools, some administrators are eager to find alternative ways of making up for the anticipated loss of revenue by phasing out the unhealthy snacks gradually while implementing other revenue-generating programs, such as fund-raisers, in the interim.

That’s the strategy administrators in the Daviess County Public Schools District in Kentucky followed when they made changes to snack offerings back in 2004. Although there was pushback from the accounting office and the students, the schools created focus groups that included students to create their own guidelines and contribute ideas for alternative snacks. After taste-tests comparing baked French fries to those that were deep-fried ones, the students voted on the baked fries, which made the transition to the lower-fat snack easier in the next school year.

“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. “We are encouraging schools to talk to students and talk to parents about what is coming. It is great for everyone to know the standards are out there, and better prepare for them.”

(MORE: Soda Contributes to Behavior Problems Among Young Children)

Let the Sun(screen) In: This regulation isn’t about what children are putting into their bodies but what they’re putting on them. Despite the fact that parents likely slathered their kids with sunscreen over summer vacation, once students return to school, they won’t be allowed to do the same before participating in outdoors sports — at least not without a doctor’s note.

That’s because sunscreens are considered over-the-counter medications by the Food and Drug Administration, and laws in most states require any child using over-the-counter medicines at school to have a doctors’ note. Only California and New York have policies that specifically allow students to use sunscreen during the school day without medical permission. (New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo just signed the state’s bill into law earlier this month.) The American Medical Association (AMA) recently adopted a policy that supports “the exemption of sunscreen from over-the-counter medication possession bans in schools.” The association hopes their endorsement will encourage schools to push for new laws.

“Students shouldn’t need to get a note from their physician in order to protect themselves from sun damage while they are at school. Even just a few sunburns can increase a child’s risk of skin cancer later in life, and they should be able to apply and reapply sunscreen at school,” said AMA board member Dr. Alexander Ding in a statement.

It’s up to each state to decide whether sunscreen warrants such an exception, but the AMA hopes more administrators become aware of the hurdle and help students protect themselves against skin cancer.

(MORE: Building Kids’ Vocabulary Doesn’t Have to Involve Words)

For more on the changes to expect in the coming school year, and tips on ensuring your children have a safe and healthy semester, check out Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations here.