School-aged kids choose unhealthy lunches

July 2, 2003 in Nutrition for Children and Teenagers, Nutrition Topics in the News

School-aged kids choose unhealthy lunches

Schools that offer students pizza and fries as alternatives to healthier lunch fare are not only encouraging children to eat high-fat foods during lunch hour -- but after school and at home as well, U.S. researchers said this week.

They said schools need to think about whether the money they earn on "a la carte" programs is worth the toll they take on children's health.

Consumer and parents' groups have recently begun complaining about the a la carte programs and availability of vending machines, which offer children more "popular" foods alongside the traditional, and carefully balanced, school lunch.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota collected data on 16 middle schools, three of which did not offer a la carte alternatives that include pizza, fries and sweet snacks. They also took details on what the teenagers ate for the previous 24 hours.

The children who were allowed to choose food outside the standard school lunches ate more fat and fewer fruits and vegetables than the government recommends. This suggests how important the school environment is. If they were at these schools that offered a la carte, they were not making up for choices made at school by eating healthier foods out of school, say the researchers.

Nine out of 10 U.S. schools offer the a la carte programs, which do not have to meet the U.S. government's nutritional recommendations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

These call for eating at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and getting no more than 30 percent of calories from fat. The USDA says average a la carte program sales generated $913 per year per 1,000 students in the 1998-1999 school year.

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