Healthy Standards Recommended for All School Food

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Millions of children soon could be saying goodbye to regular colas, candy and salty snacks during school hours.

Concerned about the rise of obesity in young people, Congress asked the Institute of Medicine to develop a set of standards for foods that would be available in schools.

The Institute responded Wednesday with a two-tier system designed to encourage youngsters to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to avoid added sugars, salt and saturated fats.

"The alarming increase in childhood obesity rates has galvanized parents and schools across the nation to find ways to improve children's diets and health, and we hope our report will assist that effort," said Virginia A. Stallings, head of the committee that prepared the report.

"Making sure that all foods and drinks available in schools meet nutrition standards is one more way schools can help children establish lifelong healthy eating habits," said Stallings, director of the nutrition center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Foods and beverages should not be used to reward or to discipline for academic activities or behavior," she added.

And don't think their recommendation applies only to children. The committee also urged that Parent Teacher Associations adhere to the same standards, as should food items sold at school fundraisers.

Foods sold in school cafeterias under federally assisted lunch programs already must meet nutritional standards. The IOM recommendation covers items considered competitive with those foods, such as items sold in vending machines and other food and drinks sold in the school but not under the federal program, an area often profitable for the schools.

The standards would not apply to bag lunches that students bring from home.

The report now goes to Congress for consideration. Copies will also go to the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Education and it will be available for state and local school boards and administrators and the food and beverage industry. Putting the recommendations into practice would involve federal, state or local laws and setting school standards and policies.

The report drew prompt praise and criticism.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said: "For the first time, we have gold-standard recommendations for school nutrition standards from one of America's most distinguished scientific bodies. And as it turns out, they are also just common sense — promoting fruit and vegetable consumption, and also seeking to reduce things like calories, fat, and sodium."

Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the "recommendations offer a tool kit for local, state, and federal policymakers who already know that we need to do more much more — to promote sound child nutrition and prevent childhood obesity."

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors, applauded the report but said it believes "it will be ineffective in making change happen.

"Any voluntary guidelines, such as those of this report, are unenforceable and present a major challenge for schools to incorporate," the Association said.

The Center for Consumer Freedom worried that the report could lead to a government "no child with a fat behind" program.

The growing rate of obesity is caused by lack of physical activity rather than overeating, argued the group, which describes itself as representing restaurants, food companies and individuals.

"These decrees may seem surreal, but many schools have already implemented similar measures. Birthday celebrations are a thing of the past with cupcakes banned in classrooms across the nation. Many schools forbid parents from bringing their kids fast food," the Center said in a statement.

On the other hand the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which describes itself as promoting nutrition, food safety and a healthy lifestyle, welcomed the report.

"Congress should support parents and protect kids by having USDA bring its disco-era standards into line with modern science," said CSPI nutrition director Margo C. Wootan.

The American Beverage Association, which represents companies that make and sell nonalcoholic beverages, said it is already working with schools to "improve the product mix" sold in schools by reformulating products, changing packaging, retrofitting vending machines and working with school districts.

This is a time-consuming process which should be complete by the 2009-2010 school year, the Association said.

Foods listed as Tier 1 would be allowed at all grade levels during the school day and during after-school activities.

These foods would have to provide at least one serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains or nonfat or low-fat dairy, would be limited to 200 calories for snacks and would have limits for fat, sugar and salt.

Examples of Tier 1 snacks were whole fruit, raisins, carrot sticks, whole-grain low-sugar cereals, some multigrain tortilla chips, some granola bars and nonfat yogurt with no more than 30 grams of added sugars. Entrees could include such items as fruit salad with yogurt or a turkey sandwich. Beverages would be limited to plain water, skim or 1 percent milk, soy beverages and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.

The IOM recommended that, because of their calorie content, juices be limited to 4-ounce servings for elementary and middle-school students and 8-ounce portions for high school students.

Tier 2 foods would be available only to high school students and only after school hours.

These foods would also be limited in calories, salt, sugar and fat and the drinks could have just have five or fewer calories per portion and no caffeine; they are not vitamin- or mineral-fortified, but may be carbonated and may contain flavoring or a sugar substitute.

Examples include single servings of baked potato chips, low-sodium whole wheat crackers, graham crackers, pretzels, caffeine-free diet soda and seltzer water.

Sports drinks would be available to students engaged in an hour or more of vigorous athletic activity, at the discretion of coaches.

The committee said fortified water should not be available in either tier.

The Institute of Medicine is a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

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