In line with several government initiatives, school lunches are becoming healthier, federal officials have revealed in a new report.
Meals now include whole grains and more fruit and vegetables and are more likely to have less salt, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey reveals. About 97% of schools offered a whole grain option for breakfast and 94% had a similar option for lunch in 2014.
CDC officials analyzed school surveys from 2000, 2006 and 2014 to see how the 2012 policies mandated by the Department of Agriculture affected the meal choices offered at school cafeterias, and their findings conclude that overall, lunches are getting healthier.
"The standards require serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and gradually reducing sodium content over 10 years," the CDC officials wrote, something many schools are implementing already.
"Almost all schools offered whole grain foods each day for breakfast and lunch, and most offered two or more vegetables and two or more fruits each day for lunch,"
The report says that almost eight in ten schools served two or more vegetables for lunch every day, while 78% percent of schools served two or more fruits.
With approximately nine in ten students consuming more sodium than recommended, the report's findings are hopeful; almost seven in ten schools used low-sodium recipes, 65% used herbs and seasonings in place of salt, and more than half the school cafeterias offered fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned high-salt options.
"Most U.S. youth do not meet national recommendations for having a healthy diet, including consuming sufficient amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; this can put them at risk for weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases," the researchers said.
However, this is changing, survey analysis reveals. Fewer than a third of schools offered the option of self-service salad bars and about 50% of schools replaced canned vegetables with low-sodium alternatives.
They also discovered that pre-portioned fruit and vegetables like baby carrot packages and fruit cups actually encourage students to choose them. The researchers were happy with the level of change noticed over the last three years, and the hope is to get obesity rates among young people to recede.
Some are reluctant to believe that the changes in school lunches actually mean students are eating healthier, as students often throw out healthy meal choices from their plates, a phenomenon Dr. Wootan reports to have slightly improved the last couple of years. A University of Vermont study showed that kids frequently throw away their fruit and vegetable servings, a practice that's more pronounced when they're forced to include them in their meals.
A different study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut studied 12 urban schools only to discover a drop in the number of students that chose vegetables from 68% in 2012 to 52% in 2014.