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Districts Slow To Adopt Healthier Meals, Report Says

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Federal rules requiring healthier school meals took effect this summer, but many students will be seeing the same fatty foods that have been on their plastic lunch trays for years, a report says.

Many school districts are taking the slow approach to better nutrition and may not be in compliance with the National School Lunch Program's new guidelines for several years, according to a report released last week by the advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy.

Nearly every district in California and Florida, and one-third of the school systems in New York and Massachusetts, have requested one- or two-year waivers from their states to delay implementation of the nutritional rules, the national survey of 900 school districts found.

The new Department of Agriculture guidelines, issued last year, require that federally subsidized school-lunch menus contain no more than 30 percent fat and 10 percent saturated fat. School lunches must also provide one-third of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and nutrients. The school-lunch program, created in 1946, serves more than 26 million children at 94,000 schools each day.

"Schools are opening this week with a mandate to meet new nutrition guidelines," said Mark S. Epstein, the president of Public Voice based here. "But changing the standards on the books is not the same as changing the meals themselves."

1996 Law Cited

One obstacle to meeting the new standards, Mr. Epstein said, is the Healthy Meals for Children Act, which President Clinton signed in May. The law allows districts participating in the school-lunch program to continue using the traditional menu-planning method of counting out portions of individual food groups to assess nutritional content.

Supporters of the law have argued that it gives schools more flexibility to design meals without having to use more expensive methods, such as computer analysis. But very few schools using this traditional method have been successful in meeting the nutritional guidelines in the past, the report contends.

Instead of giving districts another way out, the report says, the federal government should provide training and technical assistance to schools to help make planning healthy meals more efficient. The authors call on Congress to allocate $5 million to purchase computers to help school food-service directors analyze the nutritional content of the meals they serve.

To ensure that schools are in fact cooking healthier midday meals, the report also recommends strengthening federal oversight of the lunch program. Currently states are required to check once every five years to see if schools are conforming to the nutritional rules. The report recommends conducting reviews of school-lunch programs every other year.

Slow Transition

Phil Shanholtzer, a spokesman for the USDA, admitted last week that some school districts' meal programs may be slow off the mark. But he said the department has already taken significant steps to help districts meet the new standards.

The USDA has provided training to many food-service workers on how to plan healthier menus. Officials have also distributed low-fat gourmet recipes to schools.

A public-service-announcement campaign, dubbed "Team Nutrition," is under way to promote healthy eating habits. In addition, Mr. Shanholtzer said, the department will soon be offering grants to districts that are interested in training their food workers to plan menus using computers.

"We agree there is a lot of work still to be done," Mr. Shanholtzer said last week. "But this is a big, big project and it's not going to happen overnight."

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