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New School Nutrition Guidelines: Pink Milk Still on the Menu

strawberry flavored milk school lunch pictureLast Thursday, new federal guidelines for school nutrition were announced, changing standards that have remained untouched for 15 years. The new guidelines, a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, are a big deal. So big that they inspired a blog post from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack himself. (Welcome to the world of blogging, Secretary Vilsack!) In his message, posted on the Let’s Move site, Secretary Vilsak said:

As children now eat as many as two meals a day at school, it’s clear that the school food environment plays a more vital role in their health and welfare. The science-based recommendations are, in fact, consistent with an Institute of Medicine report on improving the health of children.

The report to which he refers are guidelines, of which our new federal guidelines are a near replica, released in October 2009 by a panel of prominent nutritionists for the Institute of Medicine. The changes:

* lower the calorie requirements
* eliminate trans fats
* increase the amount of allowable fat
* cut back on starchy food and reduce sodium levels over a ten-year period

Two servings of vegetables will be required at lunch, a serving of fruit will be required at both breakfast and lunch, and half of all grains served will have to be whole grains.

Check out an example Before/After School Lunch Menu

Sounds great, but what about SUGAR?!

As it turns out, sugar is not on the chopping block. Vilsack’s explanation? Sugar was not cited as a major concern in the Institute of Medicine report.

Oh really?

Yes. Really. The flavored milk made an example by food revolution hero Jamie Oliver is still on the menu. The concession is that flavored milk will have to be fat-free, which will bring the overall calorie count down. But the small adjustment does not take into consideration the nutritional impact of high-sugar foods.

Some nutritionists have dubbed sugar an “anti-nutrient” because of the health problems it causes when ingested in quantity. There have been a slew of unprecedented children’s healthy issues attribute to high sugar diets. So many that Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, has publicly blamed sugar and starchy carbs for many of the nation’s health problems. He and his colleagues (and also researchers at other universities) claim that most of the sugar taken in by children during the day come from sugary drinks.

So, does eliminating other starchy and high-sugar foods balance things out? Or is it still dangerous to serve high-sugar milks?

I suppose only time will tell. But, if you ask me, totally unnecessary flavored milks should be eliminated even if found to be a “safe” addition to otherwise healthy school lunches. If our children are only given healthy choices, they we increase their healthy food intake. Because, really, they’ll drink when they are thirsty, even if only milk and water are available. We know that children overwhelmingly opt for flavored milk when given the choice so, by offering it, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we pretty much ensure that they drink a cupful of sugar at every lunch. For no good reason.

I’m not against a chocolate milk every once and a while. I am, after all, the woman behind Caramel Steamed Milk and Nutella Hot Chocolate. But I’d like to make those choices at home where I can make adjustments that suit my children and their nutritional needs. If the government is going to feed my kids, I believe it should be healthy foods only. And if my kid refuses to eat the healthy foods offered, we’ll deal with that at home, after school. (Thank you very much!)

What do you think: Are you happy with the changes made to our school nutrition guidelines?

Photo: iStockPhoto/aschaeffer

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