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Healthy Lunch Backlash

A new healthy lunch option (courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts).

Students nationwide are protesting the new nutritional guidelines for school lunches that went into effect this year thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. From parody videos to cafeteria strikes, students are speaking out against the smaller, healthier portions, which include almost twice as many fruits and vegetables as last year, and less saturated fat and sodium. They are hungry, they say, and the healthy options aren’t tasty, leading some to discard their fruits and veggies.

Despite their cries, the portion sizes are big enough for most students (except for some, like active athletes), and in time, they will begin to embrace the meals, says Jessica Donze Black, project director for the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project. The project was created in 2011 to provide nonpartisan analysis and evidence-based recommendations for school foods, and ensure the provisions of the law are enforced. High school students are served up to 850 calories per meal, while middle schoolers can have no more than 700 calories, and elementary school students, 650 calories. Though there were previously no maximums, the calorie counts are not unusual. The USDA’s most recent school nutrition assessment in 2007 found the average high school lunch was 857 calories.

“School lunch is intended to provide one-third of the average child’s nutritional needs,” says Donze Black. “Now, [the calories] are just coming from different places.” Considering that one in three students is overweight or obese and at an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes, the new guidelines are a vital step toward healthier schools, she adds. While the USDA has been setting standards for school meals since 1946, this is the first update in 17 years, designed to ensure school meals are on par with today’s nutritional needs.

Students who do need more food, like competitive athletes, can supplement their lunch with a la carte options or snacks from home, or participate in the breakfast and after-school meal programs, Donze Black says.