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School lunches provide healthy whole grains
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March is National Nutrition Month, an opportunity to spotlight healthy eating and physical activity messages at home, school and work.
Many people find it difficult to consume the right amounts of food from each of the food groups. The good news is that children who participate in the school lunch program receive one third of the USDA recommended daily allowances for lunch. Those who participate in the school breakfast program receive a quarter of their daily recommended allowances.
“School foods are healthier than in the past as a result of the new school requirements,” said Barb Depew, RD, LD, Child Nutrition Consultant, School Nutrition Programs and Summer Food Service Program.
The Kansas State Department of Education provides training for school administrators, teachers, and school food service personnel. The training includes everything from food safety basics to culinary classes. In a trend reversal, Depew says more schools are going back to baking and cooking from scratch, so they know what’s in the foods. Schools are also offering more fresh fruits and vegetables, including salad and vegetables bars. Because students are introduced to foods they may not have tried in the past, kids sometimes go home and tell their parents they want to try the foods at home.
Desserts are still allowed in the school meal, but are limited to 2 ounces of the grain choices offered weekly. Graham crackers, granola bars and crispy rice treats are counted as grain-based desserts and are included in the total grains for the week.
“I would encourage parents and school administrators to support the program by joining kids for lunch to see the fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain choices,” said Depew.
School Nutrition Programs, administered in Kansas by the Child Nutrition and Wellness Department at the Kansas State Department of Education, partially reimburses participating public and private schools and Residential Child Care Institutions enrolled in School Nutrition Programs for serving nutritious meals, which may include breakfast, lunch or snack programs. Federal and state funding will be given to institutions based on the number of students receiving reimbursable meals or snacks. This allows students to receive meals at a low cost, reduced prices or free, with eligibility based on annual income guidelines.
“It is a challenge to eat right. The school meal program helps provide those basic needs by displaying the guidelines and choices,” said Depew.
Since these allowances vary based on age, children receive different size portions based on grade level. And, while some children are more physically active and may require more calories, options for additional fruits and vegetables are now available for them.
The amount of food and calories offered at each meal is based on three different age groups: grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Consuming a school breakfast and lunch will provide at least half of these daily requirements. recommends children ages 4-18, based on age, sex, and level of physical activity, consume the following amount of foods each day:
• Grains: 2 ½ to 4 ounce equivalents. At least half of all the grains eaten should be whole grains.
• Protein: 4-6 ½ ounce equivalents.
• Fruits: 1-2 cups
• Vegetables: 1 ½ - 3 cups
• Dairy: 2 ½ to 3 cups
At breakfast, public schools must offer students at least four food items from the following food groups: grains (with optional protein allowed), fruits/vegetables and dairy. According to the School Breakfast Scorecard, published by the Food Research and Action Center, the School Breakfast Program provides millions of low income children the opportunity to start the school day with a healthy meal. Children who eat breakfast at school start the day ready to learn -- reflected in higher test scores and better classroom behavior -- and have improved dietary intakes and reduced levels of food insecurity.
School nutrition does not have to end when school is out. In summer 2013, more than 105 sponsors held 363 serving sites in Kansas. Summer meals are free to kids ages 1-18 at these sites. Sponsors partner with libraries, recreation programs, churches, and other nonprofit organizations to offer summer food service programs. Some areas are also offering afternoon snacks and supper programs. Locations of summer sites will be posted locally.
Celebrate National Nutrition Month by reviewing school menus with your children and discussing food choices and serving sizes with them. For questions, contact the Child Nutrition Consultant in your area. A list of consultants is available at