The federal government has come a long way since the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration tried to expand the bounds of good nutrition by promoting ketchup as a vegetable.
Now, prodded by mounting evidence of atrocious eating habits among American children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced new regulations aimed at subtracting much of the fat, sodium and cholesterol from school lunches, while adding fiber and vitamins through increased servings of produce.
These changes, the broadest in the USDA's school-lunch program since the mid-1940s, are long overdue. Too many American kids eat poorly, both at home and at school, according to a pair of recent studies. In one of the studies, the consumer advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy said that 57 percent of youngsters ages 6 to 11 eat less than one serving of fruit daily, and 32 percent eat less than a serving of vegetables every day. The USDA, in its own survey from last year, stated it found levels of fat and sodium in school food that far exceeded the government's dietary guidelines.
Credit the agriculture department for introducing the stricter regulations. Its decision to allow public school districts to phase in the changes by 1998, however, is hard to digest. Even if some districts in the U.S. need time to revise their fat-laden menus, as the USDA claims, a four-year wait is excessive. What happens if the current administration isn't invited back for a second term in 1996?
Many school districts in the Baltimore area won't need so much time. In fact, they have been well ahead of the new federal standards. An example in Anne Arundel County is Davidsonville Elementary, where two years ago the school cafeteria was transformed into a "restaurant" with flowered centerpieces on tables and, more important, healthful food choices such as low-fat pizza, salads and baked potatoes. Within five months of the conversion, the number of students eating meals at the school jumped by more than 50 percent.
It's long past time for the rest of the country's school districts to follow the example of the Baltimore region in recognizing that the way a child eats affects the way he or she performs in school. With a speedier effective date, the new federal regulations could help achieve that goal.