New guidelines would make school lunches healthier

January 13, 2011 6:40:39 PM PST
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared war on obesity and a primary battleground is the school lunchroom. New federal nutritional guidelines are being proposed for cafeterias across the nation.

Some are calling the changes long overdue; the changes would be the first big changes to the school lunch program in 15 years. Obesity is the driving force behind the proposed guidelines.

At Lincoln Elementary in Oakland, Thursday's school lunch consisted of meat and brown rice and an all-you-can eat salad bar.

Teachers say eating healthier makes a difference in the classroom.

"It helps my students to concentrate better and they can work better and they have more energy," teacher Allison McGuirk said.

The USDA wants similar kinds of foods in other cafeterias in the U.S. -- less salt and fat and more fruits and veggies.

While many Bay Area school districts have changed their school lunches, there is still room for improvement. For example, a macaroni and cheese meal contains protein, but has no whole grains. The USDA is recommending both in a meal. They would also limit the amount of starch, like French fries, to only one serving per week.

The nutrition standards would also apply to the "a la carte" foods and snacks sold in vending machines.

Connie Smith is the cafeteria director at Lincoln Elementary. She says at this age kids can easily change their eating habits.

"Before they weren't eating the salad or the vegetables and now since we started the salad bar, they eat everything in the salad bar, they eat more vegetables and fruit," Smith said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese in this country.

President Barack Obama recently signed the Child Nutrition Bill, which will help schools pay for healthier foods. San Francisco Unified School District says this represents about 6 cents more per meal.

"That's a move in the right direction, but it's certainly now where we want to be, we are spending more than we receive in reimbursement," district spokesperson Nancy Waymack said.

School districts in the Bay Area typically have to dig into their general funds to make up the difference.

Most of these changes go into effect in 2012. The lower sodium requirement will take longer, about 10 years, because manufactures have to figure out how to make foods taste good without using so much salt.