School Menus Improve but Need Work

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It’s getting easier for kids to heed the advice to eat their vegetables. Recent data show that nearly 80% of schools that offer federally assisted meal programs serve at least 2 choices of fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias. But schools need more assistance to fully comply with the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) required nutrition standards for federal school meals, according to the study.

Investigators analyzed data from the 2000, 2006, and 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, a CDC national survey, to determine how completely schools implemented the 2012 USDA requirements, which include gradually reducing sodium in foods over 10 years.

During 2014, nearly all schools offered whole-grain foods each day for breakfast (97.2%) and lunch (94.4%), and most schools served at least 2 vegetables and 2 or more fruits each day. About one-third of schools also had self-serve salad bars. Of the approximately half of schools that prepared meals on site, 54% used fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned vegetables to reduce sodium levels, 52% used low-sodium canned vegetables, 65% replaced salt with other seasonings, and 68% used low-sodium recipes (Merlo C et al.MMMR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64[33]:905-908).

Despite improvements since 2000, many schools need new kitchen equipment to store and prepare fruits and vegetables, as well as additional training and technical assistance to further reduce sodium amounts. Several existing initiatives may help, but sodium reduction will require the cooperation of “multiple stakeholders, including schools, school districts, parents and other caregivers, and industry,” the investigators wrote.