ANN ARBOR—The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently relaxed school meal nutrition requirements for salt, whole grains and milk. Specifically, schools are not required to serve 100 percent whole grain products in 2017–18, no longer need to meet the strictest sodium requirements, and are allowed to serve 1 percent sugar-sweetened fat milk.
Primarily, it's low-income and minority students who eat school meals, said Rebecca Hasson, assistant professor of kinesiology and nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan and director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory. These kids, she said, are already the least healthy, and the newly relaxed nutrition guidelines could further worsen their diets.
"Some of these kids eat as many as two-thirds of their meals at school," Hasson said. "This is also the group with the highest rates of obesity, the highest consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and the highest sodium intake and hypertension, both in youth and as they age. To relax the sodium and milk restrictions and allow for sugar-sweetened milk and increased sodium in meals will disproportionately affect these kids in youth and into adulthood.
"We have evidence that suggests there is a direct link between sodium and sugar and obesity and diabetes and a whole slew of diseases that Michelle Obama was trying to impact."
The way to get kids to eat school food isn't with sugar and salt, it's through education, Hasson said.
In partnership with Project Healthy Schools, Hasson's lab leads a pilot program that brings structured physical activity opportunities to elementary schools in Michigan. Though Project Healthy Schools, out of the U-M Health System, children also receive comprehensive nutrition counseling, including taste testing foods and food preparation.