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Healthier lunches on the way for city schools

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Ozioma News Service

A new federal law will provide more money for the nation’s school lunch program – and ensure that the lunches it pays for are healthier.

President Barack Obama signed the new law on Dec. 13, fulfilling a goal of first lady Michelle Obama to fight childhood obesity. Poor eating habits by children may increase their lifetime risk of becoming overweight and having other health problems like cancer.

Nicole Bell of Indianapolis was overweight as a child. Now the mother of four, she wants to keep the same thing from happening to her kids.

“If we work together in the school and at home to reduce obesity, it would be a win-win situation for both the child and the parent,” she said.

As a working mother, Bell, 29, said it wasn’t easy planning healthy food, so she welcomes healthier menus and meals at school – and less junk food. “Get involved at the lunch room level,” she advises parents.

On Jan. 13, the Agriculture Department proposed new school-lunch requirements, including:

• Limiting starchy vegetables – like French fries – to one cup a week.

• Establishing calorie maximums and minimums.

• Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables offered.

Schools that participate in the federal school lunch program will be required to follow the new rules, which were authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The $4.5 billion law expands the lunch program to include more children and increases the amount of money the government pays schools for the lunches.

The federal school-lunch program began in 1946 and has since expanded to include after-school snacks. In 2010, schools in Indiana served about 121 million lunches, according to the Agriculture Department.

Michelle Obama hopes the healthier lunches can reduce the rates of obesity, which are increasing at alarming rates among children and adolescents. Nationally, 21 percent of African-American high school students were overweight in 2009, and an additional 15.1 percent were obese. In Indiana, 21 percent of African-American high school students were overweight and 16.6 percent were obese.

The bill got final approval from Congress on Dec. 2, when the House passed the measure by a vote of 264 to 157. Opponents said the bill was too expensive and an unnecessary increase of government control. Others didn’t like the fact that half of the new law’s cost will be taken from reductions in the food stamp program. Obama has said he will try to find ways to eliminate any food-stamp cuts.

U.S. Rep. André Carson, D-Ind., voted in favor of the bill.

In her remarks following the bill’s passage, Michelle Obama stressed that parents still have the primary responsibility to make sure their children eat well – in school and out.

Parents can help their children make good choices in the school cafeteria. Here’s how:

• Look over the cafeteria menu together, and recommend healthier items.

• Talk with your child about limiting foods like chips, soda and ice cream.

• Encourage kids to take a lunch from home, at least once or twice a week. Try to include a combination of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. For example: A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, baby carrots with salsa, an apple or banana.

Linda Ellis, Indianapolis correspondent for the Ozioma News Service, contributed to this story.

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