NO MORE DAILY FRIES | Globe Editorial

School lunches get healthier

January 23, 2011

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DESPITE GROANS emanating from lunch lines across the nation, school cafeterias can no longer serve french fries five days a week and remain eligible for federal funding. The US Department of Agriculture released new guidelines for school meal programs earlier this month that appropriately treat starches such as Tater Tots differently from other, healthier vegetables. The new rules also cap the amount of sodium and calories each lunch may contain, and restrict the types of milk and grains schools can serve.

The updates are long overdue. A third of the nearly 32 million children who participate in meal programs are overweight or obese. And schools share the blame: A recent study found that eating school meals significantly increased a child’s chances of being obese by the third grade.

While the USDA deserves a pat on the back for updating its guidelines for the first time in 15 years, it should consider further updates, including restrictions on the amount of sugar and processed foods a school can serve. Increasing the number of apples kids consume is beneficial, but not if they are covered in caramel sauce. In short, the USDA should create incentives, and provide encouragement, for schools to provide healthy meals with fresh ingredients, without tilting too far toward food-police tastelessness.

That may be harder than it would appear. According to the USDA’s own estimates, up to 35 percent of schools are out of compliance with even current federal regulations. While schools that follow the new guidelines will get an extra 6 cents per meal from the agriculture department, some school-lunch advocates doubt this rate will cover the extra cost of healthier lunch options. Schools that already meet national standards will surely adapt to the new guidelines, and their students will be healthier for it. But those struggling to keep up with even the outdated regulations may need more help — and a stronger nudge — to stop dishing out so many fries.