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With the passage of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and new school lunch requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2011, America’s school menus are healthier than ever – even if kids aren’t always happy about it.

healthier school lunches
Kids Konnections in Richland, Miss. is one of the most recent child care centers in the state to enroll in a federal program that reimburses the cost of serving healthier meals. Across the country, fewer than half of child care centers participate in the program. (Photo by Annie Gilbertson, Southern Education Desk)

School lunch was at the forefront of news and media in 2012, as students complained about being served new foods they say lack flavor. The attempt to serve healthier meals in U.S. schools is aimed at combating obesity, with more fruits and vegetables served and a daily cap on calories. It has also meant smaller servings, prompting students in Wisconsin to boycott school lunches, and leading kids in Kansas to make a music video suggesting that they aren’t getting enough food at school.

Despite disdain from kids, efforts to improve nutrition in schools seem to be helping, especially in states suffering from high child obesity rates like Mississippi.

A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in school-based efforts, including more physical education time and nutritional standards for snacks sold in vending machines, have led to a 13 percent decline in child obesity in Mississippi over the last six years.

Mississippi has the highest child obesity rate in the nation, a distinction that prompted child care centers to join the fight, even as they struggle to navigate a complicated government system.

In 2007, California set new nutritional standards for school snacks, and two years later the state eliminated sugar-sweetened beverages in high schools. The number of children who are obese has since leveled off at 38 percent, and dropped in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, some schools have outsourced their food production to companies that use chefs and local suppliers to offer healthier options and combat obesity.

In December, the USDA responded to complaints from students and schools, and announced it would tweak the food guidelines by eliminating daily and weekly limits on meats and grains. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) that the flexibility will grant schools “additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.”

More than 30 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the United States are overweight or obese, a statistic that the Pentagon has referred to as a national security issue.

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