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New USDA School Meal Rules Cut Calories, Salt; Not Potatoes

By Nirvi Shah — January 25, 2012 4 min read
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Long-awaited rules about what school breakfasts and lunches that cut salt and fat, limit calories, and increase servings of fruits and vegetables became final Wednesday, about a year after they were proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The sweeping changes, which school districts must act on in the 2012-13 school year, were made based on recommendations from the medical community, and could have a huge influence on children’s health in the U.S., because many kids get more than half the calories they eat in a day at school.

The announcement was made here at Parklawn Elementary school, with First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and celebrity chef Rachael Ray on hand to eat along with children, who were choosing from the kind of menu that will soon be required of all schools in the country. Students at Parklawn Elementary were eating turkey tacos with brown rice, and had a choice of different types of fresh melon or strawberries and kiwi as a side dish, among other items.

“It’s a red-letter day for nutrition,” Secretary Vilsack said in a call with reporters. “This is the most significant change we’ve seen in nutrition standards in a generation.”

Their original proposal for the new school-meal rules was tweaked based upon tens of thousands of opinions and actions by Congress, which successfully chipped away at some of the changes USDA wanted to make.

Among the key changes the new standards require: Students must be provided with double the amount of fruits and vegetables as in the past; all grain products served must be whole-grain rich; all milk offered must be low-fat or fat-free; there are limits on sodium; and meals will have calorie minimums and maximums.

Plans for other big changes the USDA hoped to make were squelched, however. Congress prevented the agency from limiting servings of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, corn, lima beans, and peas. The USDA also wanted to end the practice of counting tomato paste, including the sauce on a slice of pizza, as a serving of vegetables. But politics got in the way of that change, too. The political backlash came despite bipartisan support for the bill that required the changes to school meals, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Here’s a comparison of how the proposed changes compare with what was ultimately decided by USDA.

“Our kids would eat candy for breakfast, follow it up with French fries... and then come home for a big chocolate sundae,” Mrs. Obama said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they don’t do that. And when we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing at home, the last thing we want is for these things to be undone at school.”

Vilsack said the 32 million students who eat school meals each day will still see fewer starchy vegetables because there are minimum requirements of many other types of veggies—dark green, orange, and red—that must be served in a given week.

Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she welcomed the updated standards despite the political “shenanigans.”

At the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, an endeavor of the Pew Charitable Trusts, project director Jessica Donze Black was also enthusiastic.

“The updated nutrition standards for school meals are now in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s evidence-based guidance to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases and decrease the prevalence of obesity,” she said. “The focus on improving school meals comes at a critical time for children’s health. Nearly one in three adolescents in the United States today is overweight or obese, and young people increasingly suffer from diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Beyond the health benefits, Mrs. Obama said the improved meals will help students’ academic performance.

“Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high,” she said, “or, when they’re hungry.”

Some school districts, which have been adjusting their lunches to boost the amount of whole-grain items served, adding more fruits and vegetables, and serving low-fat and fat-free milk, have said the new meals will be too expensive to prepare, and despite a required boost in school-meal prices charged to students and more money from the USDA per meal, they will struggle to pay for all the the new requirements.

“We can spend a little bit now and and see it go a long way,” Ms. Ray said a little while before joining Parklawn 2nd and 4th graders in the lunch line.

Others have found that students aren’t fans of healthier meals.

The School Nutrition Association did endorse the changes however.

“These national nutrition standards will help school nutrition professionals build on their successes,” said SNA Chief Executive Officer Frank DiPasquale. “For schools hampered by tight budgets or limited equipment and staff, the School Nutrition Association will continue to provide training and support to help school nutrition professionals achieve the new meal pattern.”

Photo: First lady Michelle Obama takes her seat as she has lunch with school children at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)