Better school lunches


Students across northwest Ohio are eating healthier school lunches and breakfasts these days. Despite some grumbling by students, this round in the battle against childhood obesity goes to First Lady Michelle Obama, Congress, and innovative local school districts that have embraced new federal guidelines.

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Mrs. Obama has made childhood obesity her cause. She has been an active advocate of healthy lifestyles for America's young people, urging them to exercise more and to lay off sugary drinks and fat-laden snacks of little nutritional value.

She modeled a healthy lifestyle by planting a garden on the South Lawn of the White House, with the help of Washington students. Vegetables from the garden end up on the First Family's plates.

She has shared her exercise routine and jeopardized her dignity using hula hoops and jumping rope. And she promoted successful legislation that imposes new federal guidelines on schools that provide free and reduced-price meals to 32 million American children every day.

The new guidelines, carried out this year by Toledo area school districts, call for daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Portions and calorie counts are controlled to help young people maintain a healthy weight. Meals are required to have less saturated fat, trans fats, and salt.

Students aren't always happy about the changes. Perrysburg High School students complained that soup is off the menu there until the school finds a less sodium-rich alternative. But they'll get used to the new menu offerings -- and they'll be eating healthier.

Good nutrition isn't always cheap. The increase of six cents a meal in the federal subsidy for meeting the new requirements won't cover the cost of menu changes at many schools. But there are strategies that can help.

Toledo Public Schools started to offer free breakfast to all students this year, because breakfast costs less to make than the federal reimbursement provides. The more qualifying students who participate, the more breakfast profits offset lunchtime losses. And it makes sure more students are fueled to succeed in morning classes.

Schools also will find that some items can be made as quickly and more cheaply from scratch. All students should welcome fresh-made cafeteria food.

Students will benefit from the changes in many ways. A large percentage of area students (three out of four in TPS) qualify for free or reduced-price meals. On some days, the meals they get at a school may be the only nourishment they have.

Nutritious school meals help build healthy eating habits. They, along with more exercise, help fight the nation's childhood-obesity rate -- an alarming 17 percent and rising. And they help prevent future health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

That should earn school cafeterias a five-star rating from parents.