But the changes won't come cheaply.
Schools can't put just anything on a kid's lunch tray. They must follow federal standards, because the government's school lunch program subsidizes lunch and breakfast for needy kids in nearly every public school and many private ones.
Yet those standards are lacking, according to an Institute of Medicine report released Tuesday. They don't restrict the number of calories kids are offered, even though childhood obesity keeps climbing.
And they don't match up with the government's own dietary guidelines, which serve as the basis for the familiar Food Pyramid and were updated in 2005. They call for lots of fresh fruit and veggies and more whole grains.
"Today, overweight children outnumber undernourished children, and childhood obesity is often referred to as an epidemic in both the medical and community settings," Virginia Stallings, who chaired the report committee, wrote.
The proposed standards won't be cheap. The committee said breakfast prices could soar 20 percent, and lunch prices could rise by 4 percent.
That's daunting for school kitchens, which get less from the government, $2.68, than it actually costs to make each free lunch, about $2.92, according to a recent survey done by the School Nutrition Association. Combine that with rising food and fuel prices, and school kitchens are feeling the squeeze. Many have been raising prices for full-price meals.
The federal dollars "simply do not keep pace with rising costs on everything from food and labor to napkins and spoons," Dora Rivas, president of the association and head of food and nutrition in Dallas public schools, said in a statement last week.
The group is pressuring Congress to boost spending on school lunches. The Institute of Medicine committee agreed, saying the reimbursement should be raised to cover the cost of adding more fruits and veggies to the menu and substituting healthier whole grains for refined grains.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Obama administration would review the report as it writes new rules for school meals.
The report proposed new standards according to grade levels - kindergarten through five, six through eight and nine through 12. Among the recommendations:
- Each week, kids should be offered 2 1/2 to 5 servings of fruit for lunch, depending on their grade, and at least five servings of fruit for breakfast. No more than half the fruit servings should be juice.
- Kids should be offered 1 1/4 to 2 1/2 servings of vegetables for lunch, according to the report, which says that a half-cup of dark green and bright orange veggies and legumes like beans should be offered at lunch.
- And kids should be offered nine to 13 servings of grain for lunch and seven to 10 servings of grain for breakfast, the report said. At least half of those servings should be whole whole grains such as whole wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice.
That is what they should be offered - under the proposed standards, a kid would be allowed to turn down some items in the cafeteria line as long as they still took a certain number of fruits, juices or veggies to their seats.
The current standards only set minimum calorie levels, but the report says there should be a ceiling on calories, too. Lunch should be no more than 650 to 850 calories, and breakfast should be no more than 500 to 600 calories, depending on grade, the report said.
The Institute of Medicine is part of the National Academies, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.
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