WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. children should get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their school meals even though this will push up costs, and calories should be limited, a panel recommended to the federal government on Tuesday.
As obesity among adolescents continues to rise, a report from the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies, proposed updating school meal programs to meet nutritional needs and foster better eating habits, but recognized healthier, fresher ingredients would boost costs, especially at breakfast where fruit servings would increase.
It estimated the changes could increase the cost of breakfast by as much as 25 percent and lunch by 9 percent.
Many school cafeterias serve such fare as hot dogs, chicken nuggets and french fries and a dearth of fresh produce. Under the new guidelines, most school food providers would need more government money to help pay for food, training and equipment, the report said.
"This will be a very wise investment in children's health," Virginia Stallings, chair of the group that conducted the study said in an interview.
The Institute of Medicine conducted the review of the country's school breakfast and lunch programs at the request of the Agriculture Department, which runs them. School meal programs provide 40 million meals daily and more than half of students' food and nutrient intake during the school day.
Students can receive free or subsidized school meals if their family's income is low enough.
Officials at the USDA are updating the nutrition and meal requirements used for school meals. The framework, last updated in 1995, sets food and nutrient standards that must be met by school programs to qualify for cash reimbursements and food from the government.
It will review the recommendations and develop requirements for participating schools.
"Today overweight children outnumber undernourished children, and childhood obesity is often referred to as an epidemic in both the medical and community settings," Stallings wrote in the report.
Obesity rates among U.S. children have doubled in the last 20 years, and almost a third of American children are either overweight or obese. The epidemic of obesity is linked to a host of health problems such as higher risks for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The new guidelines would do away with the current approach that sets a minimum number of calories per meal in favor of establishing a range. For the first time an upper limit would be in place, with lunches, for example, not to exceed 650 calories for students in up to 5th grade, 700 for grades 6-8, and 850 for grades 9-12.
The report backed a gradual lowering of sodium levels during the next 10 years and said schools should ensure half or more of the grains and breads they provide contain 50 percent or more whole grains.
In addition, it proposed serving more fruit, with no more than half it as juice, and favored more servings of vegetables with a focus on leafy greens and orange vegetables rather than starchy vegetables such as potatoes. To keep saturated fat low, only 1 percent or fat free milk could be served.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement the USDA is "engaged in a thorough review of the IOM recommendations" and will make changes to its school food programs based on its findings.
Child nutrition programs, estimated to cost $24 billion this fiscal year, are due for reauthorization but Congress is not expected to approve an overhaul before 2010.
President Barack Obama has a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015 and suggested a $1 billion a year boost in funding for school meals. A source for the money has not been found.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman