Setting the pace for school nutrition

June 17, 1994

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 1946, are long overdue. Too many American kids eat poorly, both at home and at school, according to a pair of recent studies. In one study, the consumer advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy said 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 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. The Baltimore County school system, for example, employs registered dietitians to analyze the daily cafeteria fare. And the food managers of the Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll county systems have overseen shifts in the past few years toward more nutritious and healthful meals that meet government guidelines and please young palates. The Howard system was honored by the USDA last October with a special citation for creative menu planning.

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.

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