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Calorie limits in school lunches are recommended

An Institute of Medicine panel also urges lower sodium content under proposed guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, whose nutritional standards have not been updated since 1995.

October 20, 2009|Mary MacVean

Children would get fewer French fries and more dark green vegetables in school cafeterias under recommendations being issued today by an Institute of Medicine panel.

In addition, for the first time in the National School Lunch Program, the committee called for calorie limits on meals in an effort to curb obesity. The lunch recommendations allot 650 calories for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, 700 calories in sixth to eighth grade, and 850 calories in high school. Breakfasts should not be above 500, 550 and 600, respectively, for the same grade levels, the committee said.

Recommendations from the panel, made up of scientists and school food officials, must be approved by the Department of Agriculture.

The panel acknowledged that its recommendations would increase costs and called for a higher federal reimbursement to school districts, capital investments and money to train cafeteria workers to make the changes. Food costs for breakfasts could rise as much as 9%, and for lunches as much as 25%, if all the recommendations were enacted, the committee said.

The National School Lunch Program is available in 99% of public schools, and about 30 million schoolchildren took part in 2007 at a federal cost of $8.7 billion. The breakfast program is available in about 85% of schools and serves more than 10 million children each day. Nutrition standards for school meals have not been updated since 1995.

The committee said its recommendations reflected the 2005 federal dietary guidelines for Americans.

The intention is to teach children "to recognize foods that contribute to" a healthful diet and to help them develop lifelong habits, said Mary Jo Tuckwell, a member of the Institute of Medicine committee and a registered dietitian from Ashland, Wis.

Over the next decade, the sodium content of meals should gradually be reduced, the committee said. A typical high school lunch today contains about 1,600 milligrams of sodium; a maximum of 740 milligrams is recommended.

But the recommended upper limit of total fat would increase from 30% to 35% of calories, bringing it in line with the dietary guidelines. The goal is no trans fats and less than 10% of calories as saturated fats.

The committee recommended more legumes, vegetables and fruits -- such as cups of fruit in breakfasts for all grades and in lunches for high school students. It also said no more than half of the fruit should be in the form of juice.

The committee recommended weekly amounts for vegetables, including dark green and orange vegetables, grains, and meats, cheese and yogurt for each age group. And it said fruits and vegetables were not interchangeable.

It also recommended that whole milk be replaced with low-fat or skim milk, and that refined grains be replaced with whole grain foods.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has already adopted some changes like those recommended in the report through a 2005 school board action that, for example, reduced the amount of added sugar in cereals served to students.

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mary.macvean@latimes.com

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