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Who knew the simple school lunch served in thousands of American schools would turn out to be a hotbed of controversy?

Debates among school districts, government agencies, and parents rage over everything from the presence of vending machines in schools to the ways allergic children should be protected from peanuts. And parents have emerged as the major force pushing for healthier food in U.S. school cafeterias.

"Parents play a very important role in the way school districts approach food service, says Galin McDonald, manager of food services for the school district of Bellingham, Wash. "They have been, and continue to be, a major motivator of change."

Better Quality Lunches

"The first thing parents should know is that the old-style lunches of fried foods and no choice of foods is a thing of the past," says McDonald.

Beginning in the 1980s, federal guidelines were made for portion sizes. No longer were grade school and high school students served the same size meals. The changes continued. By the early 1990s, lunches couldn't contain more than 30% of a child's daily requirement of fat or 10% of saturated fat. The lunches now provide at least one-third of the child's daily requirements of protein and vitamins.

To meet these requirements, lunches changed dramatically.

"We offer a far wider range of choices and vastly improved quality," says McDonald. "We have salad bars that let students select fruits and vegetables they like. We have peanut-free tables so that any student with an allergy, even those who bring lunch, can be sure not to get exposed to the allergen. It just isn't the old lunch people grew up with anymore."

Balanced and Nutritious

"One of the great things about school food is that a parent can be sure a child has an opportunity to eat a balanced, nutritious meal," says Jan Stanton, a registered dietitian and director of public awareness for the American School Food Service Association. "The food served in schools has to meet very specific federal guidelines, which are established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

These federal rules say that a school lunch can't provide more than 30% of a child's daily requirement of fat or 10% of saturated fat. Further, the lunch must provide at least one-third of the child's daily requirements of protein and vitamins.

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