When girls in the school lunch program are more likely to be obese than who choose not to participate, it’s probably time for change.  

That’s exactly where the $10-billion+ National School Lunch Program finds itself. 

According to the Los Angles Times, a new study finds the federal government’s 65-year-old program for providing free or subsidized meals is contributing to epidemic childhood obesity in America.

But those findings are about the bad old National School Lunch Program, not the new one that’s about to come into existence next year with recently minted nutritional standards.

USDA just closed the public comment period on the new standards that are supposed to remake breakfast, lunches, and after-school snacks that now reach into 101,000 public and private American schools.

Those schools claim they are ready for change. When the 2010-11 academic year got underway, the School Nutrition Association reported a vast majority of  schools were using fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, and reducing the use of sodium and sugar in meals.  

Beginning in 2012, serving healthy food is no longer going to be voluntary. Congress has stepped in with changes in nutritional standards and funding rules. The crux of the school lunch program is the $2.72 per meal reimbursement from USDA. A family of four earning $28,664 is eligible for those free school lunches. Others do not have to pay the full rate.

Buying healthier options for the schools is going to cost money, an additional 52 cents per meal over time according to one estimate.  In making the changes Congress came through with about six more cents for the current fiscal year.

There are many ins and outs in the new rules that schools in the National School Lunch Program will have to follow. Some are going to cost more money. Some of the more interesting ones include:

  • Only fat-free and low-fat milk will be allowed, but flavored milk will be permitted.

  • Fruits and vegetables will be separated into two components.  

  • No more than half the daily fruit requirement can be juice; only 100 percent juice is acceptable.

  • A weekly serving from each of five subgroups of vegetables will be required; including dark greens and legumes.

  • Fruit strips, fruit drops and other snack-type fruits and vegetables are not allowed.

  • Half of grains offered during week must be whole grain-rich.

  • For a “reimbursable meal,” a student must select a fruit or vegetable at breakfast or lunch. 

  • Declines will be acceptable for two food items at lunch and one at breakfast.

  • Sodium, calories, and saturated fat levels can be met on average over the week.

  • Products and ingredients must contain zero grams of trans fat per serving, meaning less than 0.5 gram per serving.

  • Manufacturer’s specifications must specify zero grams of trans fat per serving.

  • Total fat is to be kept in the 25-35 percent range.  (The current regulatory maximum is 30 percent.)

  • No more than 10 percent of total calories can come from saturated fat.

  • Sodium limits for lunch would be 640 mg for grades K-5,  710 mg for grades 6-8, and 740 mg for grades 9-12.

  • Sodium limits for breakfast would be 430 mg for grades K-5, 470 mg for grades 6-8, and 500 mg for grades 9-12.

  • The minimum and maximum calorie levels would be 350 to 500 for K-5 breakfast, and 550-650 for K-5 lunch; 400-550 for 6-8 breakfast and 600-700 for 6-8 lunch; and 450-600 9-12 breakfast and 750-850 for 9-12 lunch.

The study reported by the Los Angeles Times was by Penn State University and published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.  It found girls who participated in the school lunch program gained weight faster than those who did not participate.  The lunch program did not have the same affect on boys.

The study, based on 574 girls, was funded by the National Institute of Health and USDA, which runs the school lunch program.

Schools will have the 2011-12 school year to get adjusted to the changes in the lunch program, which will be mandatory in the 2012-13 school year.  

Schools are not being required to do their own nutrient analysis.  Instead, states will monitor saturated fat, calories, sodium and trans fat.