Take Lunch Program off Back Burner

September 16, 1994

The consumer advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy has issued a report card on the federal government's new guidelines for healthier school lunches. At the same time, Public Voice criticized the government's decision to set a 1998 deadline for implementation of the improvements.

That's an appropriate mixed response to the government rules.

In fact, this newspaper expressed the same combination of praise and criticism months ago when the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally announced its revisions of the school lunch program.

We still feel that the decision to allow school districts to phase in the changes over four years is a mistake. Even if some school districts in the U.S. need time to correct their fat-laden menus, as the USDA claims, a four-year wait is too long. Given the fact that the current administration might be out of power in 1998, logic would dictate that President Clinton's agriculture department would want to put these much-needed changes into effect during the next year or two.

As Public Voice officials noted in their report, 41 school systems nationwide have already enhanced the nutritional value of the meals they serve to their students.

One of those systems is Howard County's, which was honored by the USDA last fall with a special citation for creative menu planning. The department will again recognize the Howard system, this time for the exemplary way it makes students and their parents aware of the leaner yet tasty meals now offered at local school cafeterias.

In most places, if not in Howard, school menus have been overdue for revamping. Too many American kids eat poorly, both at home and at school, according to recent studies by the USDA and Public Voice. The USDA found levels of fat and sodium in school food that far exceeded the government's dietary guidelines. The Public Voice study revealed that 57 percent of youngsters ages 6 to 11 years eat less than one serving of fruit daily, and 32 percent eat less than a serving of vegetables every day.

Credit the USDA for trying to improve on these poor findings. But the agency should consider the example of Howard County and recognize that a first-rate school lunch program is something the nation's students shouldn't have to wait for.

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