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This year, students’ lunch trays have a new look. Their plates are filled with fresh fruits, colorful crisp vegetables, beans, hearty whole grains, low-fat dairy and healthier versions of their all time favorites — pizza, cheese and flavored milk.

In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services released new nutrition standards for school meals. These long awaited changes — the first update to the National School Lunch Program in fifteen years — went into effect July 1.

The new nutrition standards are designed to combat childhood obesity, nutrition deficits and hunger. This is especially good news for black children.

Over 25 percent of African-American children in the United States are overweight or obese. Yet, they still aren’t meeting the recommended servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains or dairy. As a result, their intake of key nutrients essential to help children stay healthy is at suboptimal levels.

On the other hand, in 2010, nearly one-third of African American households with children faced food insecurity. Those children suffer nutrition deficits because they don’t get enough to eat.

Schools are in a unique position to impact children’s nutritional well being. That’s especially true for African-American children, who participate in school lunch programs at higher rates than children of other races. For them, the quality of school meals is critical in curbing childhood obesity and hunger.

New Lunch Menus

Under the new nutrition standards, school lunches will help close nutrient gaps by providing one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.

To further address that obesity issue — and associated chronic diseases that are cropping up among children at younger ages — school lunches will now have no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat, and have zero grams of trans fat.

The new school lunches will be more nutrient dense. They must have at least one-half cup to one cup fruit, three-fourths cup to one cup vegetables — with a weekly requirement of dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy and other vegetables — one to two ounces whole grains, one to two ounces of meat or meat alternates and eights ounces of low-fat or fat-free white milk or flavored milk. The larger portions are minimum daily servings for students in grades 9-12.

So how does that translate to the lunch tray? Compare a typical elementary school lunch menu before and after the changes:

Before: Bean and cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese, one-fourth cup applesauce, four ounces of orange juice and eight ounces of two percent milk.

After: Submarine sandwich (one ounce of turkey, one-half ounce of low-fat cheese) on a whole wheat roll, one-half cup refried beans, one-half cup of jicama, one-fourth cup of green pepper strips, one-half cup of fresh cantaloupe wedges, eight ounces of skim milk, one packet mustard, one ounce reduced fat mayonnaise and one ounce of low-fat ranch dip.

That’s actually a bigger meal — but it’s more nutrient dense and has fewer calories.

Healthier Faves

Since sweetened beverages are considered a cause for childhood obesity, the appearance of flavored milk in the new standards may be surprising.

The issue is that several studies show that eliminating flavored milk from school meals leads to children drinking less milk. One study found that eliminating flavored milk dropped student milk consumption an average of 35 percent — with those children missing out on the benefits of drinking milk.

Carol Ann Grodski, registered dietitian and food service director of Babylon and Islip School Districts in New York, is all too familiar with the consequences of eliminating flavored milk.

“We experienced an immediate decline in the consumption of milk when we eliminated flavored milk in our K-1 schools,” she says. “It never recovered that school year.”

That’s bad news. Study results indicate that the essential nutrients lost from decreased milk consumption are substantial and not easily replaced by other foods.

Almost 70 percent of the milk children chose is flavored, but the good news is that it contains the same essential nutrients found in white milk. And flavored milk served in schools today has 38 percent fewer added sugars under the new guidelines, and just 34 more calories than white milk.

Pizza, another favorite on the lunch menu, is also going through a huge transformation, says Grodski. Reduced fat, light or part-skim and reduced-sodium cheese are just one part of healthier slices of pizza.

“Low-fat, whole grain crust, higher fiber and modified salt [pizza] are all being reformulated for a ‘kid friendly’ product.”

Brown Bag It

Not all schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, and the new guidelines are only required of schools that get public funding. That means private and parochial schools don’t have to follow the new lunch menu.

But health-conscious parents can lobby their school to follow the guidelines voluntarily. Or they can prepare brown-bag lunches that meet the new high-quality standards. A healthy brown-bag lunch should include three-fourths to 1 cup of a vegetable or salad, one-half to one cup of fruit, one to two servings of whole grains (i.e. one slice of whole grain bread or one-half cups of brown rice), eight ounces of low-fat or fat-free milk, and one to two ounces of lean meat, chicken, fish, or ½ cup beans or another protein source.

In fact, it can’t hurt for parents to follow the National School Lunch Program guidelines for at-home meals, too. Go to the USDA Food and Nutrition Services website to download a copy of the guidelines.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.