When it comes to the state that ranks the third highest in the nation for obesity rates, it might be surprising to learn that West Virginia is slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to nutrition in school meals, according to Amy Gannon of the West Virginia University Extension Service.
In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new guidelines for the nation’s school breakfast and lunch program. The new guidelines are focusing more on improved nutrition, which Gannon said is important since children often receive 2/3 of their meals during the school hours.
“This is by no means an overhaul of the school lunch system,” said Gannon, a youth specialist and registered dietitian with WVU Extension’s Family Nutrition Programs. “These new guidelines create more specific requirements for specific food groups, including vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, among others.”
The recommendations including increasing servings from specific vegetable groups like: dark greens (like spinach), dark oranges (like sweet potatoes), and legumes. Greater emphasis is placed on targeting vitamins A and C, as well as fiber.
West Virginia has actually been following a more strict set of nutrition guidelines since 2008, when Policy 4321.1, an initiative of the West Virginia Board of Education, went into effect, according to Gannon. The policy requires all lunches to contain at least one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowance for key nutrients.
There’s also greater emphasis placed on including nutrient-rich food and drinks that have fewer calories than typical offerings. This means serving more whole-grain foods, more fruits and vegetables, and low-fat or fat-free milk in school meals.
Gannon said many of these changes are needed for a nation in which many members of the next generation prefer processed foods and sweetened beverages over their healthy counterparts. She worries that this is particularly true of areas with high obesity rates, like West Virginia.
“When it comes to health and nutrition in our state, many people focus solely on the obesity epidemic,” Gannon said. “What people don’t often realize is that you can be overweight and undernourished, which is what we see with a portion of the children who receive SNAP benefits.”
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program offers free/reduced-price lunches to families in need who meet eligibility requirements.
“Our state has already been enforcing a stricter set of nutrition criteria for programs relating to SNAP benefits,” Gannon said. “We’re making small steps in the right direction, and we hope that the new lunch guidelines are more in line with how people will be, or already are, eating in their own homes.”
For more information on health and nutrition programs in your community, contact your local county office of the WVU Extension Service or visit www.ext.wvu.edu.
CONTACT: Cassie Waugh, WVU Extension Service
Office: 304-293-8735; Cell: 304-376-1829