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Back to School Means Back to School Lunch

Girl with school lunchHow to tell if your child’s school offers heart healthy lunches?

We’ve heard the startling statistics: one third of American children are at risk for preventable chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease due to obesity or being overweight. Now that school is back in session, it’s time again to pay attention to what our kids are having for lunch, as some children consume two out of three meals at school.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to improve the nutrition standards for all foods sold at schools, including vending machine items, to promote healthier eating and reduce obesity. The new standards emphasize the importance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and set limitations on sodium, fat and calories – all practices that promote heart health!

Here are a few ways the new School Lunch Meal Pattern promotes a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Schools must now offer more fruits and vegetables, a source high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. At least 2 cups of fruits and vegetables must be offered every day at High School and 1 ½ cups per day at Elementary and Middle Schools.
  • Now, all grains sold in schools must be whole grain rich (at least 51% whole grain). Whole grains are a great source of important nutrients like B vitamins, iron and fiber, which play an important role in lowering blood cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and obesity.
  • The new meal pattern restricts the amount of sodium allowed to a maximum of 740mg/day in High School (640mg/day Elementary, 710mg/day Middle School).
  • The new standards restrict saturated fats to less than 10% of calories, because a diet high in saturated fats can increase blood cholesterol levels.
  • Because a colorful diet provides a variety of antioxidants, which may help prevent against heart disease and cancer, schools now have minimum requirements for the following each week:
    • Dark green (1/2 cup)
    • Red/Orange (3/4 cup)
    • Beans and Peas (1/2 cup)
    • Starchy vegetables (1/2 cup)

These changes appear to be making a difference. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine analyzed the impact of the new USDA meal pattern one year after implementation and reported an increase in fruit selection by 23% and an increase in vegetable consumption by 16.2%.

Every school participating in the National School Lunch Program must follow the same nutrition standards, but menus and snack offerings vary from school to school. To find menus and nutrient analyses for foods specific to your child’s school, you can visit the Lunch/Nutrition Services page on the school’s website,

Find information regarding meal prices, monthly menus, nutrition information, and information about the Smart Snacks program for schools in the Charleston or the tri-county area:
Charleston County School District
Berkeley County School District
Dorchester Country School District

By Laura Adams, RD, LD, clinical dietitian for Morrison Healthcare, Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital

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