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Health & Parenting

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School Lunches Get a Garnish.

Mystery Meat No More

WebMD Feature

Sept. 3, 2001 -- Gone are the days when school lunch meant Sloppy Joes or mystery meat served up lukewarm on an orange tray.

Today, school lunches may include organic pork tacos, sushi, vegetarian stir-fry -- or all of the above.

School lunches are getting a much-needed makeover -- including a wider variety of lean entrees and an increased number of fruits and vegetables, thanks to the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, a program designed to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. The USDA reports that schools have trimmed fat, cholesterol, and sodium from lunches. Consider that 10 years ago, barely one-third of schools offered low-fat lunches; now four of every five schools do.

What's more, many schools are creating their own healthful and innovative variations on the school lunch of yore:

  • At Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., students are offered gourmet fare -- such as hormone-free chicken and chow mein made with fresh vegetables form the local farmer's market -- all of which is delivered from a growing number of local restaurants.
  • In another school near Santa Cruz, Calif., elementary students cook breakfast and lunch in the food lab using ingredients grown in the school's organic garden.

And such menu variety is also making its way onto college campuses, where it can help collegians avoid packing on the dreaded "freshman 15."

And the changes are desperately needed.

The latest statistics show that 13% of American children ages 6 to 11 are overweight -- up from 11% in 1994. Also, obesity-related disorders -- including type 2 diabetes -- are increasing in children at a rapid rate. More than half of obese children between 5 and 10 years old have at least one risk factor for heart disease including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, and high blood sugar levels; more than one-quarter have two or more of these complications.

"Childhood and adolescent obesity is a ... [true] epidemic, and childhood and adolescent diabetes is now, regrettably, not uncommon and directly associated with obesity," says Robert Berkowitz, MD, medical director of the weight and eating disorders program at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Still it's not just about healthier meal choices, say experts -- nutrition education and increased physical activity are also needed to reverse this alarming trend.

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