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School lunch proposal aims to cut salt and calories

As federal officials on Thursday unveiled plans for the first major nutritional overhaul of school lunches in 15 years, local officials said many of the proposed changes are already in place in Tampa Bay schools.

Banning most trans fats, using low-fat or nonfat milk, and serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains all are common practice locally.

But there's one issue officials say will be a challenge: reducing sodium. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposal calls for sodium in school breakfasts and lunches to be gradually reduced over 10 years until it's cut by more than half.

"That's just going to be tough," said Lori Drenth, director of food and nutrition for Hernando County schools, noting that salt is often key to making food taste good.

Many people think you don't need to worry about sodium unless you have high blood pressure, but new research shows even youngsters need to shake the habit.

Teens eat more salt than anyone else — more than 3,800 milligrams a day on average — according to research presented in November at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2010. And reducing salt intake each day as a teen could reduce high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke in adulthood, researchers found. The No. 1 source of sodium for teens? Pizza.

The proposed USDA guidelines, which are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, call for school lunches to eventually contain no more than 636 to 736 milligrams of sodium, and for breakfasts to contain no more than 434 to 495 milligrams of sodium, depending on the age of the child.

That would certainly rule out the ham, egg and cheese biscuit offered in Hillsborough County schools, which packs 1,792 milligrams of sodium, according to information on the district's website. It would also spell doom for a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup in Pinellas schools, which, despite already using a reduced-sodium slice of American cheese, still packs 1,309 milligrams of sodium.

Catherine Gerard, food nutrition supervisor for Pinellas County schools, said it's a good thing the sodium reduction will be phased in, because it will take a joint effort between manufacturers and the food service industry to make that happen. Cutting sodium is among the hottest topics in nutrition at all ages; the American Heart Association advocates cutting the recommended daily intake to 1,500 milligrams from the current 2,400.

But getting the sodium content down is only part of the challenge, Drenth said.

"For a lot of these products, you can cut the sodium in half," she said. "But the question is, would a kid even touch it?"

The new guidelines — which are proposals that have a way to go before taking effect — will also include new calorie limits for meals. Gerard said those are needed because kids are less active than they were 15 years ago, when the current school meal guidelines were set.

Also, nutrition standards would be set for "a la carte" items sold in lunchrooms, and for foods and drinks sold in vending machines.

That would be a first, said Mary Kate Harrison, nutrition director for Hillsborough County schools, where potato chips, candy and soft drinks are among the offerings in campus vending machines.

Other districts, including Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas, have made their vending machine offerings healthier in recent years, offering baked chips instead of fried, for example.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new standards could affect more than 32 million children and are crucial because kids can consume as many as half of their daily calories in school.

According to the USDA, about a third of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, and the number of obese children has tripled in the past few decades. "If we don't contain obesity in this country, it's going to eat us alive in terms of health care costs," he said.

The proposals come just a few weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for healthier foods, which are often more expensive.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

School lunch proposal aims to cut salt and calories 01/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 8:55pm]
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