School lunch rules!

As federal guidelines for school lunches change, UNC nutritionists evaluate the changes and use “taste texting” and local farmers while partnering with schools on improving food choices.

Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there has never been a school lunch program free of politics.

New guidelines for school lunches, announced earlier this year by First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, are no exception, said UNC’s Suzanne Havala Hobbs.
The new guidelines will go into effect in the 2012–13 school year, and represent the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years, Hobbs said.

The good news, from a purely nutritional point of view, is that the guidelines are better than ever before, said Hobbs, who directs the Executive Doctoral Program in Health Leadership in UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

Pizza and fries transformed

Under the new rules, pizza and French fries won’t disappear from lunch lines, but they will be made with healthier ingredients. And for the first time, entire meals will have calorie caps and most trans fats will be banned.

Sodium will gradually decrease over a 10-year period. And while milk remains the designated beverage, it will now have to be low in fat, and flavored milk will have to be nonfat.

Alice Ammerman, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School, along with David Cavallo, a Ph.D. candidate in the department who has partnered with Ammerman on school nutrition projects, have taken a pragmatic rather than purist approach in evaluating the changes.

“If students have French fries now and then, provided it is a good quality fat that they are fried in, it is not a terrible thing,” Ammerman said. “Potato production is good for the North Carolina economy as well – especially sweet potatoes, our state vegetable.”

Pizza is not necessarily a horrible food either, Ammerman added, now that more whole grains will be in crusts and there are many options for healthy toppings.

Ammerman, Cavallo and Hobbs all applauded the first lady for taking on an issue that would not seem to be controversial, yet always is.

“On one level, everybody agrees that children should eat better,” Cavallo said. “It is a sort of broad, happy goal that everybody shares. But the actual implementation of new guidelines gets into the kind of thorny questions that we saw when this bill was getting passed. It did not just breeze through.”

Hobbs sees the latest improvements as part of a continuing political struggle where progress has always come in fits and starts and can take decades to achieve.

In North Carolina’s schools

Ammerman and Cavallo are working on three projects through the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, which Ammerman directs.

“GotHealth” is a pilot intervention study designed to test a web-based nutrition and physical activity screening and tracking program for middle school students, Ammerman said.

“Taste texting” is another project that will be piloted at Chapel Hill High School in the fall. “This study will attempt to improve the nutritional choices students make by providing a mechanism that will allow them to order limited, healthier choices ahead of time using text messaging or the web,” Ammerman said.

Ammerman and Cavallo also just began a project in Rockingham County that received funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation and the Reidsville Area Foundation to provide healthier meals at schools while supporting local farmers who are transitioning from tobacco to vegetable production.

The project will offer training and equipment to cafeteria workers so they can handle the demands of preparing more fresh fruits and vegetables under new federal guidelines.

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