CDC: More Schools Offering Healthy Breakfast, Lunch Options

CDC: More Schools Offering Healthy Breakfast, Lunch Options
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September 10, 2015

The days of unhealthy school lunches seem to be coming to an end with more schools offering whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and reducing sodium content.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that most schools in the U.S. are implementing healthy practices to help meet updated federal school meal standards that focus on providing healthier meal options for students.

Since students consume almost half of their daily calories at school, the standards require over the next 10 years serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and gradually reducing sodium.

Using school-level data from the School Health Policies and Practices Study for 2000, 2006, and 2014, the CDC found that between 2000 and 2014, the percentage of schools implementing five of the nine school nutrition practices examined has increased significantly. Almost all schools offered whole grains each day for breakfast and lunch, 97 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

The number of schools offering two or more vegetables increased from about 62 percent in 2000 to 79 percent in 2014. Similarly, the number of schools offering two or more fruits has increased from 68 percent to 78 percent.

About one third of schools now offer self-serve salad bars.

More than half of schools that prepared their meals at the school used fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned. In 2000 only 10 percent used low-sodium canned vegetables instead of regular. In 2015 almost 52 percent of schools used low-sodium canned vegetables. The use of other seasonings instead of salt just about doubled from 33 percent to 65 percent, as did those schools that reduced the amount of sodium called for or used low-sodium recipes.

The CDC says that although schools are moving in the right direction, there are many ways to further increase fruit and vegetable availability and reduce salt in school foods.

School Food Divide

In March, a University of Connecticut study found that over the course of a three-year study window, the percentage of students choosing fruits increased. While the number of students choosing vegetables decreased, those that did ate more of what was on their plate and threw away less.

The study was welcome news for supporters of the standards, which were updated in 2010.

School lunch providers, on the other hand, say that the new healthier options have been dissuading wealthier students from buying lunch. Students who can afford it are opting to brown-bag their lunch or go off school grounds. As a result, a larger percentage of school lunches are being eaten by students receiving free or reduced lunch.

Additionally, schools have cut back on a la cart snack items because many don't meet nutritional standards.

This, says the School Nutrition Association (SNA), is increasing the cost for schools to prepare and serve lunch. Some schools, they say, are operating at a loss, which causes districts to dip into the general fund.

The industry group is asking Congress to ease some of the standards to make the food once-again appealing to students. The SNA is asking Congress to ease the sodium and whole grain restrictions and remove the requirement that students have to take a fruit or a vegetable as part of a meal, which they say is increasing food waste.

Congress this month is expected to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This week the USDA announced $8 million in grants to help schools reach new standards.

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