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January 2012

USDA Sets New Rules for School Meals

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently issued new rules concerning the types of foods served to students in kindergarten through 12th grade at school. Currently the nutritional standards for school meals are set forth by the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The new rules, which will go into effect July 2012, aim to reduce the currently accepted levels of sodium and fat in school meals, as well as increase the types of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins that must be offered to students.

A low sodium diet has been shown to significantly reduce an individual's chance of developing coronary heart disease, which occurs when the blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the heart muscle gradually become narrowed or blocked by plaque deposits. Plaque is a combination of fatty material, calcium, scar tissue, and proteins.

Most Americans eat about four or five times the amount of sodium they need. Table salt is just one source of this mineral in the American diet. Almost every non-fresh food purchased at the grocery store contains added amounts of sodium that are well above the amount that the body needs. Such an overuse of this mineral has serious medical consequences.

In addition to consuming less sodium, eating a diet that is low in fat and high in nutritional value has long been advocated by many major U.S. health organizations as a key component to preventing heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, and many other adult-onset chronic diseases. However, many individuals incorrectly manage their level of fat intake by consuming low fat foods that contain artificial sugars such as aspartame or higher levels of calories.

According to the new USDA regulations, school meals will need to be designed using single food-based planning menus to make sure that key food groups are included at each meal. Furthermore, the meals will need to be planned separately for different grade groups (K-5, 6-8, 9-12), since calorie requirements change with age.

In addition, the new rules require that fruits and vegetables are offered at lunch as separate components (one fruit, one vegetable). Vegetables will be sub-grouped, and each school is required to serve every subcategory of vegetables weekly. These subgroups include dark green vegetables, red/orange vegetables, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and others. Also one meat or meat alternative and one grain must be served at breakfast and lunch, with eventually only whole grain-rich grains being offered. Milk provided by schools will be limited to only low-fat or fat-free milks, with flavors only available in fat-free varieties. Finally, the levels of saturated and trans fat in each meal must be reduced.

For more information about low-sodium diets, please visit Natural Standard's Health & Wellness Database.

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  1. Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine.
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
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