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Doctors concerned about high caloric meals, inadequate nutrition in Universal School Meals Program

Doctors concerned with high caloric food in new Universal School Meals Program
Doctors concerned with high caloric food in new Universal School Meals Program 02:54

As schools reopen after the summer break, students across the state were welcomed back into the cafeteria with the Universal School Meals Program, granting every child free breakfast and lunch.

The program requires all of California's public school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools serving students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade to provide two free meals on each school day to any student asking for a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility.

However, the Universal Meals Program has drawn concerns from doctors who said that the menus do not provide adequate nutrition and instead promote weight gain.

"These items are, honestly, resembling a lot of what we see at fast food sites which is encouraging or normalizing these food items for children," said Director of Obesity Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Dr. Amanda Velazquez. "There is a big emphasis on carbohydrates and less about, fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein." 

In addition to the concerns of high caloric foods and inadequate nutrition, food workers are concerned about the limited supplies of meals.

"We are very, very limited on the amount of trays that we get," said Los Angeles Unified School District food service worker Elizabeth Hernandez said. "These kids are dropping half of their food because the trays that we have to give them...are too small."

Hernandez also expressed her concerns about the improper trays impacting the presentation of the food and how it may affect students' appetites.

In addition to the food, Velazquez shared her concerns about that the beverages offered on the menus.

"There is a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages and beverages with calories on these menus," she said.

Hernandez added that the inclusion of sugar-sweetened beverages stems from the lack of containers for fresh vegetables.

"They rather would have fresh vegetables but because we do not have a container, we have to replace it with that little vegetable juice," said Hernandez.

Velazquez also called for less milk on the menu, after it was included in every meal, every day.

"There's definitely lobbyists and some food industries that are playing a role at hand," she said. "Overall, less milk, more veggies and, overall, less processed food.

While there is one fresh item available for almost every meal, it is the minority and competes with other choices. Additionally, according to Velazquez, the meals provided to grades 9-12 exceed the daily calorie requirements for high school students.

"We're set up to fail essentially," she said.

On its website, LAUSD's Food Services Division, Cafe L.A. said it "plans meals in compliance with the United States Department of Agriculture and California Department of Education nutrition standards."

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