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Lunch Lessons: DC Expert Talks About Improving School Lunches

Newly approved regulations for school lunches have forced schools to revamp their menu options, but a local expert talks about changing how children see healthy food.

In August of this year, Congress approved calorie limits on school lunches. Under the new regulations, cafeterias are required to serve twice as many fruits and vegetables while limiting proteins and carbohydrates.

The DC-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting better nutrition, sponsors the Healthy School Lunch Campaign.

The PCRM Healthy School Lunch Team works with school districts across the country and organizes meetings and presentations for school boards, PTAs, and student groups and its message is that the food served in school should promote the health of all children. PCRM has worked closely with D.C. public schools, along with schools in Montgomery County.

Jill Eckart, nutrition program manager at PCRM, encourages schools to offer menus with healthy low-fat, cholesterol-free options.

Menus in most school lunch programs are too high in saturated fat and cholesterol and too low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, according to Eckart. It’s a challenge for schools to offer new things without succumbing to offering unhealthy foods, Eckart said.

See what other area schools are doing to promote healthy eating by reading our Lunch Lessons series.

With the new regulations in effect, she said students should see major changes in their lunch options in the upcoming years.

Schools should focus on eliminating the unhealthy options, which are primarily meat products like hot dogs and chicken nuggets, and instead should provide more plant-based foods like beans, fruits and vegetables, Eckart said.

Those foods may be popular among students, she said, but they have no fiber or valuable minerals and nutrients.

Eckart pushes schools to provide meals that promote healthy living, so that when these students are adults they will make better decisions about their diet. But, educating kids about healthy foods should start early, Eckart said.

“The earlier we can start, the better,” she said.

Healthier foods lead to greater concentration in class, according to Eckart.

“Eating healthy increases a students ability to focus,” Eckart said. “It’s important to give students a good breakfast and lunch so they can be better focused in school.”

Some of the major changes in school lunches include new sodium limits, whole grain requirements and reductions in cheese and processed meat, according to Eckart. Schools are required to choose 50 percent whole grain and that will increase to 100 percent in the next two years, according to Eckart.

There is also a focus on eliminating processed meats and limiting cheese, which is the number one source of saturated fat, according to Eckart. Soy products could count as an alternative to meat, she added.

Eckart said that unhealthy foods contribute to high rates of obesity, early-onset diabetes, and hypertension, among other chronic diseases in children and teens.

“I would strongly urge schools not to lose sight of removing unhealthy foods from the lunch line,” Eckart said.

From her work, Eckart has noted that kids will eat better foods if exposed to them but the challenge lies in choosing foods that are tasty.

“Our results tell us that kids will buy foods that are new to them,” she said.

“It’s important to test these foods first before putting them in the lunch line. We need to make sure they taste great,” Eckart said.

Have tips and tricks for helping children eat healthier? Tell us in the comments.

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