New meal standards for schools help kids make the right nutritional choices

Tags: nutrition, united states department of agriculture, fuel up to play 60, requirement, diet, dairy council, school

New meal standards for schools help kids make the right nutritional choices

By Teresa Wagner, M.S., R.D./L.D.
Program Director, Dairy Max Incorporated

On Jan. 25, 2012, first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals that will result in healthier meals for kids across the nation. The new meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs every school day. The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by the first lady as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

The final standards make practical changes that ensure children have access to nutrient-rich food choices at school to help them be successful in developing healthy lifestyles they can carry into adulthood. Those standards include:

  1. Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  2. Substantially increasing offerings of whole-grain-rich foods;
  3. Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  4. Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  5. Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture built the new rule around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. The standards were also updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and aimed to foster the kind of healthy changes at school that many parents are already trying to encourage at home, such as making sure that kids are offered both fruits and vegetables each day, more whole grains, and portion sizes that provide calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight.

These standards fall nicely in line with the premise of the Fuel Up to Play 60 program. Fuel Up to Play 60 is an in-school nutrition and physical activity program launched by National Dairy Council and National Football League, in collaboration with the USDA. The program encourages youth to consume nutrient-rich foods (low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and achieve at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Research shows that kids who are well-nourished and more physically active tend to have improved cognitive function, stronger academic achievement, increased concentration, and better test scores. The bottom line is that Fuel Up to Play 60 can help improve the health, achievement, and long-term well-being for students in schools.

The dietary guidelines state three servings of dairy foods every day are an important part of balanced diet contributing key nutrients needed for good health. Milk, cheese, and yogurt contribute those same important nutrients to the school meal program. In fact, milk, flavored or plain, is the number one food source of calcium, potassium, and vitamin D in children’s diets and continues to be required to be offered at both breakfast and lunch. The great news is that one-third of the flavored milk available is already fat-free and many processors have lowered the sugar content. Flavored milk in general contributes only 3 percent of the added sugars in children’s diets compared with almost 50 percent contributed by soda and fruit drinks.

Dairy foods in general continue to play an important role in the school breakfast and lunch programs due to their nutritional and economic value. The dairy industry is continuing to innovate to find product improvements and solutions that will fit the needs of schools and communities across America, and is helping to improve the nutrition and physical activity opportunities at school through the Fuel Up to Play 60 program.

Schools and youth can sign up for the program by visiting  On the website, students can take a pledge, get involved in challenges, learn from other students, track their physical activity and healthy eating behaviors, earn rewards, and explore ways to get healthy and be active. Adults can sign up to be program advisors or supporters. Schools can apply for competitive funding and find out who else in the school is involved in Fuel Up to Play 60. Funding is based on the quality of the application and sustainability of the specific request. Find out more from your local dairy council representative at

© 2012 National Dairy Council. Fuel Up is a service mark of the National Dairy Council.