During the past several years, political controversy has made its way onto the lunch tray, focused particularly on the nutritional content of meals served in schools. The federal government recently stepped back some Obama-era rules and decided to allow school meals with low-fat flavored milks and fewer whole grains. They also stopped planned decreases in the salt content of the meals. These rules help guide school decisions in what goes into the breakfasts and lunches served at schools, but administrators and districts, like parents and children, still have latitude to make healthier choices.

There’s no denying the challenge of providing meals that are nutritious, low-cost and flavorful. In particular, schools must be mindful of serving food that children will want to consume while also considering the latest nutrition science. The imperative to battle the obesity epidemic in Texas and nationwide adds an additional layer of complexity.

Although science on nutrition is often fluid, clear and compelling data show that children need less sugar and salt and more fruits and vegetables. Additionally, healthy-diet recommendations for children and adults are available in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint publication of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It emphasizes more fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources, whole grains, low-fat and nonfat dairy options — and fewer processed foods. 

Many school systems have had great success in complying with the current rules. The proposed new rules would add some challenges to this compliance, but they would be feasible for most schools.

Most importantly, we must ensure that this first set of changed guidelines does not lead officials — at the federal or local levels — to backtrack on providing healthy meals to children.

There needs to be a continuing dialogue between parents, schools and the pediatric community about what a healthy diet consists of. The federal standards obviously play an important role in this conversation, but just because the standards allow a food choice doesn’t mean that is the right one. By the same token, parents shouldn’t let districts serve less-healthy meals just because the federal government says it’s OK — as we tell our kids, we can always be healthier.

It’s also important to remember that schools can only do so much. We know dietary patterns are established early in life, as is a tendency toward being overweight or obese. Parents and other family members have a critical role to play in teaching children to eat healthy and in guiding them toward good food choices at school, in restaurants and at the grocery store. Meals provided in schools must meet nutrition recommendations, but they are only part of the equation. 

As such, schools and other institutions should educate and assist parents, helping them teach their children to make good food choices. In turn, parents can and should advocate at the school level for healthy options — even when kids seem to prefer sugary beverages, salt and saturated fats.

For their part, school districts should carefully consider the changes allowed under the new rules or any future changes in the guidelines. Officials should avoid excuses to scrap programs that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to schools. Society has made a lot of progress in recent years in fighting childhood obesity — it shouldn’t tolerate changes that would roll back that progress.

Our children deserve better food and better health, regardless of government rules — and regardless of partisanship.

Steven Abrams, M.D., is the inaugural chair of the department of pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics for the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. Keli Hawthorne is director of clinical research for the department of pediatrics at The University of Texas at Austin.

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