Schools Get Creative with New USDA Lunch Guidelines, Baylor Food Expert Says
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WACO, Texas (Aug. 16, 2012) -- New school meal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have prompted schools to hire chefs, enlist parents and communities for input, and recruit students to do food tastings, said a Baylor University dietitian and past chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics legislative and public policy committee.
"School meals get a lot of attention in August, and it's a very good time to make sure food is nourishing and appealing for students," said Suzy Weems, Ph.D., chair of the department of family and consumer sciences in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.
The new guidelines are the latest step in school lunch reform, which began when President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. "Food insecurity" -- not knowing when the next meal will come -- has been a disturbing issue among low-income families, and there has been an alarming increase of obesity in children and teens. Being overweight or obese can contribute to Diabetes 2, high cholesterol, a shorter life span and higher health-care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The school model -- dubbed MyTray -- will be based on MyPlate, guidelines recently approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. MyPlate toppled the "food pyramid" that for many years had been the symbol of a healthy diet.
"MyTray examines, 'How should my tray look?'" Weems said. "These are healthy meals, based on science and nutrition standards, with a goal of decreasing saturated fat and sodium and increasing fruits and vegetables, dairy, whole grains and protein -- as well as providing guidelines for age-appropriate portions.
"There should be a choice of two - a vegetable and a fruit, or two vegetables -- as well as a portion of protein (meat), whole grain and a beverage, with some dairy," she said. "The Food and Drug Administration says school lunch participants are more likely to consume milk, vegetables and protein; and less likely to consume soft drinks and fruit drinks, which have fewer nutrients."
The guidelines can be quickly adjusted to accommodate people with special diet needs, Weems said.
School meal programs vary, with some offering breakfasts are well as lunches. Some are free to all, while some must be purchased at flat rates or on sliding scales.
Regardless of whether school lunches are prepared by chefs, cooks or parents, Weems said, families should educate themselves about truths and incorrect stereotypes about food and focus on healthy eating patterns, including meal times.
"Flavored milk has gotten a bad reputation because it tastes sweeter, but there's less sugar in flavored milk than in soft drinks and sports drinks," she said. "Flavored and unflavored milks have more nutrients, so you consider how much vitamins and minerals you get for the calories. Calcium and Vitamin D are two of these that can be low in children's diets. A lot of children don't drink milk or have other foods that have calcium and Vitamin D."
School lunches are often healthier than home-packed ones, which all too often are "grab and go" containing such items as high-fat, high-salt chips, Weems said.
"Look for these positive changes in schools," she said. "Some kids aren't going to like the way the food tastes. But sometimes, you have to give things a chance. Encourage your children to be open to change."
To view MyPlate guidelines, visit www.ChooseMyPlate.gov
Suzy Weems' professional experiences span wellness, weight management, diabetes care, eating disorders and cardiovascular health. She is a certified specialist in sports dietetics. As a consulting dietitian, she has worked for hospitals and extended-care facilities across Texas and has extensive experience in diverse geographical, cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic venues. She is a past president of Texas Dietetic Association.
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