December 17, 2008 / 9:19 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. school meals may be key to better child health

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Many American children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables and their diet lacks key nutrients, according to a report released on Wednesday that focuses on school food programs as a way to help prevent long-term health problems.

School kids in the United States are getting too many calories from solid fats found in foods such as pizza and hamburgers, and sugars from candy and soda, said the report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies.

“Most Americans, not just children, are not eating as balanced a diet as we want,” said Virginia Stallings, a professor at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the committee that conducted the review.

“There are so few times where we have an opportunity to touch every child’s life,” she 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 U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees them. School meal programs provide 40 million meals daily and more than half of a student’s food and nutrient intake during the school day.

Child nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast, are due for reauthorization by Congress in 2009.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, has said more emphasis should be put on getting more healthier and fresher foods into school meals.

Tom Vilsack, who was nominated for Secretary of Agriculture by President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday, said the USDA “must place nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs administered by the department.”

The 192-page review found children aged 5-18 ate 50 percent or less of the vegetables recommended by the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, and fruit intake was 50 percent or less than the suggested amount for kids 9-18 years old.

Children also consume too much sodium as well as calories from solid fats and added sugars, the report said.

Officials at the USDA are updating the nutrition and meal requirements used for school breakfast and lunch programs, and looked for recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.

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.

Efforts to overhaul school nutrition programs come as obesity among children has been steadily rising.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13.9 percent of children aged 2 to 5, 18.8 percent of those aged 6 to 11, and more than 17 percent of those 12 to 19 are overweight.

School meals are often better than what kids get on their own or bring from home, but breakfast and lunch programs need to work on reducing fat and sodium, said Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action center, an anti-hunger group.

“School meals are absolutely essential not just to reduce hunger, but to kids’ health,” Weill said. “Obesity has helped focus attention that school meals should be better.”

Reporting by Christopher Doering, editing by Anthony Boadle

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