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Healthy Meals, Healthy Students

March 10, 2012

The following is a guest post by Karen Kafer. Karen is a registered dietitian (RD) and Vice President of Health Partnerships-Nutrition Affairs for the National Dairy Council (NDC) with more than 25 years of corporate, nutrition and health communications experience. 

There’s no better time to be a healthy student in America. A few weeks ago, the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama announced the final ruling on nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch programs―the first major change to school meals in over 15 years. While other guidelines and recommendations can sometimes lead to confusion, the updated school meal guidelines are easy to understand: schools will now focus on portion control and reducing the amount of saturated fats, trans-fats and sodium in school meals, replacing them with healthier fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat/fat-free dairy. With nearly 32 million kids participating in school meal programs each school day, the new school meal guidelines also emphasize the accessibility of nutritious food options and teach healthy eating habits. I love how expansive these new guidelines are―touching on each aspect of a nutritious meal — the MyPlate way.

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, dietary intake of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D are low enough to be of public health concern for both adults and children. With the continued inclusion of low-fat and fat-free milk with school meals, we are ensuring that children have access to nine essential nutrients, including three of the four listed above. And for those children that don’t like white milk, fat-free flavored milk offers a great-tasting alternative that retains all of the same nutrients as white milk.

As an industry, we’ve worked with dairy farmers, milk processors and schools to proactively reformulate flavored milk in the last year to lower its sugar content and total calories while still preserving its taste and nutritional value. These reformulations have been received with delight from both students and parents, like those in Fairfax County, VA. In fact, a study conducted over three months at 58 elementary and secondary schools across the country found that when flavored milk was not available as an option, milk consumption dropped approximately 35 percent on average. With milk consumption down, children could be missing out on essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium and protein.

No single program or initiative will solve the problem of childhood obesity alone. But the updates to the school meal guidelines along with school wellness programs such as Fuel Up to Play 60, designed to promote school nutrition and active lifestyles for students across the country, are exciting steps towards controlling childhood obesity. Through a collaborative effort between parents, students, health professionals, government officials and school stakeholders, we can help ensure that today’s children enjoy healthy and productive lives.

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