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Students at Scott Middle School fill the lunchroom to capacity as they enjoy a quick bite to eat before heading out into the sunshine during their lunch period in September 2017.

For many of us, school lunches bring back plenty of memories. It was the school cafeteria where we were first introduced to such delicacies as tater tots, fish sticks, sloppy Joes, and those iconic half-pint containers of milk.

What was often missing from the typical school lunch, at least in my generation, was flavor, appearance and freshness. The school lunch program depended on cheap surplus agricultural commodities, and that’s what they often tasted like. Also missing (although no one really cared back then) were whole grain breads and fresh fruits and vegetables.

True, by the 1970s and 80s, the meal plans were well-intended. They mostly followed USDA guidelines, providing one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for key nutrients. Typical lunches were based on the Basic Four food groups and included meat or chicken, canned vegetables or fruit, enriched bread, and whole milk.

As nutritional guidelines have evolved over the past 30 years, so have school lunch menus. For example, in LPS school cafeterias, salads and other low fat, low-salt, low calorie, and vegetarian options are common.

Still, there is no getting around the fact that childhood and teen obesity remains a critical public health problem. Unfortunately, one third of school-aged children are obese or overweight. This was one of the main reasons why the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed by Congress in 2010. Indeed, the bill was one of few in recent memory that had broad bi-partisan support.

The bill established reduced portion sizes and required more fresh fruit, vegetable, and whole grain offerings. Most food options had less sodium, sugar, and fat. It even encouraged greater access to local farms for fresh produce.

Initially, the reaction among school children and teens was about as expected. Lots of kids were not crazy about the healthier options. According to some reports, there was an increase in the amount of food left on trays and wasted.

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So the question for school administers was the same one parents know well. Should kids be allowed to eat what they want or should they be served what adults know is good for them? After all, when given the choice of an apple or apple pie, most kids will choose the pie. Thus, the act included an education component to teach kids about nutrition and diet.

Research on how the program has been performing is now emerging. The data shows that participation in the school lunch program is the same as before the program began. Importantly, fruit and vegetable consumption is up nearly 20 percent. For low-income families, in particular, school lunches and breakfasts are the healthiest meal kids are likely to eat.

The program also allowed local schools to develop their own customized meal plans. Many schools responded with creative and attractive menu options that have been well-received by kids. For example, reducing salt poses flavor and palatability challenges. Studies have shown that the simple addition of spices and herbs makes vegetables more tasty and appealing to children.

One consequence of improved school lunch quality is that some kids are rushed to finish lunch within their 20-25 minute lunch break. Maybe it’s time, say some experts, to increase the lunch period to 30 or more minutes. In other countries, a one-hour lunch break is common.

There have been other important outcomes. Because of USDA incentives, schools have purchased nearly $1 billion of local produce and other foods, which has benefited local farmers.

Regardless of how we may remember the school lunches of a bygone era, your children and the other 30 million kids that rely on the school lunch program have healthier and more high-quality options than ever before. That’s why nearly every public health and nutrition group has endorsed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids program. So has the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, and the national PTA.

Although the USDA was criticized for relaxing the rules in 2017, the school lunch program is still quite an improvement from a generation ago. Who would have thought you would ever see hummus or black bean burgers on a school lunch menu? Yet there they are right here at LPS. Of course, sloppy Joes are still available!

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Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at features@journalstar.com.

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