School Lunches: Joining Nutrition and Taste

Do you know what's in your child's school cafeteria? A new wave of government programs regulating school lunches will ensure a healthy lunch for all students.

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See also "Sugar's Evil Twin".

How many calories is a 6-year-old boy supposed to eat every day? What about a 16-year-old girl? How much calcium and vitamins D and A should they have? And, come to think of it, which has more sodium: a grilled cheese sandwich or a veggie burger?

Knowing the answers to these questions—and turning them into breakfast, lunch and snack menus—is the job of school food-service directors. Those menus now have to meet a new set of federal guidelines. This year, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act goes into effect, bringing significant changes to public schools throughout the country.

“It’s nothing short of a revolution—a welcome one—in school lunch,” says Karen Castaneda, director of nutritional services for the Lower Merion School District.

The food in public schools was already regulated. The Competitive Foods in Pennsylvania Schools program was issued by the Department of Education’s Division of Food and Nutrition for the 2007-2008 academic year, expanding on its federal predecessor, the National School Lunch Program.

Created in 1946, the NSLP is funded by Congress and updated every five years. It provides reduced-price or free lunches to children of families with lower income levels. All students can buy low-cost lunches, so long as they meet NSLP guidelines. It’s either that or pay an à la carte price—and the difference can be substantial.

At Lower Merion, an NSLP lunch includes the choice of a hot entrée, sandwich or premade salad; an eight-ounce milk; the choice of vegetable, bread or a grain; and fresh fruit or juice. The cost is just $3.40. By contrast, the à la carte price for one sandwich is $3-$3.50. NSLP discounts provide financial motivation for making healthier choices.

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