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Personal Health: Food from home fails nutrition test

Many parents undoubtedly think they are doing the best for their children by having them bring lunch from home instead of eating the lunches served in school. But recent studies clearly prove them wrong.

Home-packed lunches, the research showed, are likely to be considerably less nourishing than the meals offered in schools that abide by current nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch Program.

That program is, distressingly, increasingly under attack. The requirements for less salt and only whole grains were already reversed in the final federal spending bill approved by the Senate on Dec. 13.

But the program must not continue to be undermined, and more schools should be encouraged to participate. Nearly 32 million of the more than 50 million children in public elementary and secondary schools eat school lunches, most of them provided through the program. For about 60 percent of those children, half or more of their daily calories are consumed at lunch.

Those numbers, along with the recent findings on meals brought from home, make the contents of lunches served in school especially important to the health of America’s children, now and in the future.

One study, conducted in 12 elementary and intermediate schools in Houston, found that compared with what is served in school, lunches brought from home contained fewer servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk than the national program mandates.

Packed lunches also contained more desserts, chips and sweetened nondairy drinks, none of which can be served by schools that participate in the federal program. “About 90 percent of lunches from home contained desserts, snack chips, and sweetened beverages,” the study found.

The study also found that, contrary to widespread complaints from food service personnel, there has been no increase in food wasted by children who eat school lunches since rule changes took effect in 2012. About the same percentage of foods were uneaten and discarded as were wasted the year before.

A second study, among pre-K and kindergarten children in four schools in rural Virginia, found that calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar were significantly higher and protein, fiber and calcium were significantly lower in lunches brought from home than in the meals served in school.

A third study examined food selection and plate waste by elementary and middle school children in four schools in an urban, low-income school district before and after introduction of the new meal standards. Juliana F.W. Cohen and co-authors found no increase in waste and a significantly greater selection and consumption of vegetables and fruits from the improved menus.

“These results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality,” they wrote. “Legislation to weaken the standards is not warranted.”

Before the 2012-13 school year, a school lunch had to offer ½ to 1 cup of fruits and vegetables combined (no variety specified), 1 cup of milk of any kind, 1 ounce of grains of any kind (at least 8 to 15 ounces a week) and 1½ to 2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative (at least 7½ to 15 ounces per week).

The current program requires ½ to 1 cup of fruits, ¾ to 1 cup of vegetables, 1 cup of 1 percent or fat-free milk (if sweetened, fat-free only), 1 to 2 ounces of grains (half of which are whole grains, to a maximum of 9 to 12 ounces a week), and 1 to 2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative (to a maximum of 10 to 12 ounces a week). A variety of vegetables – not just potatoes – must be served, and children must select at least three of these options each day, including at least one fruit or vegetable.

These improvements in the nutritional value of lunches served in schools that are eligible for federal reimbursement followed congressional passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The law was prompted by shocking findings in 2008 by child nutrition experts who examined the contents of school lunches for the Institute of Medicine.

As Dr. Jennifer A. Woo Baidal and Dr. Elsie M. Taveras reported in November in The New England Journal of Medicine, the 14 experts found that “children ate strikingly few fruits and vegetables, with little variety.”

“Potatoes accounted for one third of vegetable consumption. Intake of refined grains was high,” they added. “Almost 80 percent of children consumed more saturated fat than was recommended, and sodium intake was excessive in all age groups.”

Perhaps most distressing, “children ate more than 500 excess calories from solid fats and added sugars per day,” the doctors reported.

As a mother of two boys and grandmother of four, I know that many parents who give children lunch from home want to be sure it is eaten, so they pack what they know the children like. But that is exactly how we got to the dismal state of child obesity and the disease-promoting eating habits that too often carry over into adulthood. Many chronic ailments that currently trouble adult Americans originate with poor diets acquired in childhood.

Few question the need to do a better job of teaching children to eat and enjoy the foods that are best for them. Yet lessons on nutrition and hands-on experience with wholesome foods often fall by the wayside in busy households and in schools that now spend more time “teaching to the test” than fostering healthy bodies and minds.

Karen W. Cullen, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, suggested that parents learn more about preparing healthy lunches – is a good place to start – take their children shopping, let them to pick out vegetables and fruits to try and help prepare them at home.

“Kids are adaptable and sometimes need repeat exposures to new foods,” Cohen said. “Given enough opportunity, they can learn to like them.”

“If you only expose children to chicken nuggets and french fries, that’s what they’ll like to eat,” Baidal said. “Schools can help by giving foods creative names and presenting them in fun ways. Food-service personnel can prompt children to try different foods when they come through the line.”

Nutritious foods can be incorporated into classroom lessons in math, science and language arts, then served in the lunchroom. Foods that are familiar are more likely to be chosen and eaten.