Healthier food choices are at the forefront across New Jersey as school districts statewide commemorate National School Lunch Week.

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"Students are finding a wide variety of healthy, appealing lunch choices in their cafeterias. They include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, reduced fat items along with reduced fat and fat free milks," said Rose Tricario, Director of the Division of Food and Nutrition with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. "By drawing the attention to it, we're really taking some time out to educate everybody about what's available to them and also the importance of having a healthy diet as a part of your life."

Tricario was at the Charles H. Bullock Elementary School in Montclair with a panel of second grade students who sampled new school lunch menu items that meet healthier federal guidelines enacted this academic year. The group tasted vegetarian chili, garbanzo bean salad and fresh berries.

"It's not only about the obesity epidemic in this country. Of course, making the healthier choices and incorporating those healthier, reduced fat items does help," said Tricario. "But, having a healthier diet does impact overall health as well. If you make better choices, you'll be less likely to suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and all those other health-related issues that can be prevented with proper diet and exercise."

The federal healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act school lunch regulations also have strict limits on saturated fat and portion size. "I think the more children see these healthier items at school and the more children are acquiring the taste for those items at school, the more likely they will be to look for it at home and make better choices outside of school. That's our goal," said Tricario.

For more information about the new federal meal guidelines, visit the USDA website.